School counselor bounces back to beat cancer

By By DEANGELO McDANIEL

DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — During some of her darkest moments, Catrena Jackson wanted to quit.

The competitive spirit of the former high school athlete was beaten and battered, and she had grown tired of being the burden she thought she had become.

There was no light at the end, she thought. Death seemed better than life.

But she pushed through the daily pain, believing God had other plans for her and her time wasn't over.

"This is what cancer does to you," she said last week, tears rolling down her face. "You know better, but all I thought was no one would have to take care of me. I didn't want to be a burden."

For almost two hours, an emotional Jackson recalled her two-year struggle with cancer. The disease carried the mother of two to the lowest of lows, but family, co-workers and friends helped her remain positive and to stay strong.

After a semester of medical leave, Jackson returned to her counseling position at Austin High after the Christmas break. Her cancer is in remission.

"No one was happier to see her than me," senior counselor Lewis White said. "She has that soft motherly touch that I don't have, and there are some situations when students need that."

White's father died of cancer two years ago, and his mother is battling the disease.

Jackson's return to Austin came after two fights with cancer. Shortly after the birth of her first child in 2008, doctors found a large mass in one of her breasts. She had a double mastectomy, but opted for no treatment after surgery because she wanted to have more children.

"I felt well, and doctors said they had gotten it all," Jackson said.

Two years after the birth of her second child, Jackson started to experience "extreme pain" in her back, hips and left side of her body.

Her limp at school became more noticeable, but co-workers didn't say anything, counselor Lisa Earley said.

Both of Earley's parents died of cancer, and she said the staff was concerned about Jackson. Earley said they didn't say anything because Jackson didn't use "whatever was going on as an excuse" to stop doing her job.

"She walked the campus like nothing was wrong," Earley said. "Her slow decline hit all of us, but she felt like this was her private battle."

Jackson knew her co-workers — the group she calls her second family — were concerned. By November 2012, she could no longer endure the pain and resolved that she would not "go into 2013 without knowing what was wrong."

Jackson had blocked cancer out of her mind, thinking "it was anything other than that. Cancer never crossed my mind."

She visited several specialists before an MRI showed discoloration on her bones. Doctors told her it could be cancer or an infection.

Jackson said she knew it was cancer, and her suspicions were confirmed May 20, 2013, when a bone biopsy revealed her breast cancer had metastasized in her bones.

Her second fight with cancer started, but this one would be more physically and emotionally challenging because the chemotherapy robbed her of her strength.

Jackson's children knew she was not doing well. She attended her daughter's T-ball games, but couldn't pitch ball with her at home and couldn't cheer like she wanted. Family members drove her where she wanted to go and helped her walk.

"You start to feel like a burden, and this wears on you emotionally," Jackson said.

Although still taking chemotherapy, she slowly regained her strength and tried to return to school in August.

"I was still in pain and not productive," she said.

Jackson is one of four counselors at Austin and in the group of three that handles ninth- through 11th-grade students. Three of the counselors have lost at least one parent to cancer, and another's father is dealing with the disease.

They shared Jackson's workload while she was on leave.

"We're family here, and Catrena is a big part of the family," Earley said.

Besides realizing she can endure life-changing moments, Jackson said she's still trying to figure out what she learned about her two fights with cancer.

With tear-soaked tissues in her hands, she looked to the sky and said she doesn't dwell on whether cancer will return.

"I know other people who didn't have the same result as I did, and I'm thankful," she said.

Jackson is tested monthly and continues to take medication to strengthen her bones.

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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