As an athlete, patient or coach, Jackie Custer believes in the mantra there is no ‘I’ in team. Growing up, Jackie learned how to win games with her teammates. As she faced her own battle with cancer, she relied on her Akron Children’s care team to get her to the finish line. Today, at 24, Jackie is a tutor, mentor and coach at Minerva Local Schools where she teaches kids the importance of teamwork in all aspects of life.
We caught up with Jackie the “Cancer Crusher” to see what fuels her positive spirit and goals for the future, as she gets ready to transition to adult care later this year.
In 2014, you were diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a childhood cancer of the bone marrow and blood. How is your health today?
My health is a lot better since being diagnosed. I am currently 5 years out of treatment, but I am still feeling the side effects of my treatment. In 2016, I was diagnosed with avascular necrosis (AVN), a condition that causes the blood to stop flowing to my major joints. I had AVN in both of my shoulders, hips and knees. It has required two shoulder replacements, a hip replacement, a graft in my other hip, and a graft in one of my knees. I am hopeful that I’ll get surgery done on my other knee, too, so I can keep up with my players and students!
After treatment, did cancer or its side effects keep you from achieving your goals?
I was an avid basketball and softball player in high school and aspired to play in college. Cancer took away my ability to play, but it didn’t take away my love for sports. Today, I’m still not able to play physically, but I can coach and I love it! I coach girls’ basketball and softball and even coached girls’ volleyball this year.
Another goal of mine was to graduate from college and I did. I earned a bachelor’s degree in education with a minor in Chinese from the University of Mount Union. I’m currently a 7th grade intervention inclusion tutor at Minerva Middle School. I’m certified to teach middle school math and science so my next goal is to have my own classroom.
How has cancer influenced your perspective on life?
When I was a sophomore in high school, my basketball coach always preached to us, “Never take anything for granted.” I never understood what it meant until I was diagnosed with cancer. I realized that tomorrow is not always promised and that the little things I took for granted started to become big things like walking, which I had to relearn after I suffered a stroke during treatment.
Going through my cancer treatments, I always went in with a positive attitude and had a mindset that I was going to get through it. I still do that to this today. I always try to find the positives in every situation and never take anything for granted. I now carry this sentiment forward and share it with my students and players.
How did Akron Children’s help you transition to life after cancer treatment?
During and after treatment, I attended a support group for children with cancer and survivors of cancer. The group has really helped me become who I am today. It’s easy talking to friends and family about what you went through, but no one truly understands like the people sitting next to you in that group. Nurses and doctors also attend and do a wonderful job of explaining what life will be like and what other side effects may come about. More than anything, they are supportive of everything you’re going through and want you to succeed in life.
Later this year, I will transition out of Akron Children’s care and I’m really sad to leave. The nurses, therapists, doctors and volunteers have become my second family. I know when people support each other, great things can happen and that’s why I’m so thankful Dr. Hord, former nurse practitioner, Ann Stratton, nurse, Kelsey Cline and retired nurse clinician, Rosemary Forgach were on my treatment team and will continue to be in life as my friends.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to 16-year-old Jackie or any child facing an uphill battle?
I know it’s easier said than done, but never give up. There will be so many times where you feel like you hit your breaking point, but I promise there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Always have a positive attitude and lean on Him for understanding and your team for support.
The cancer survivorship program at The Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancers and Blood Disorders provides regular, long-term medical follow up and social support as kids transition out of treatment. For more information, call 330-543-8580.