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Battle-tested: Soldier, single mom battles history of cancer

By STEVE DORFMANOctober 28, 2018

GREENACRES, Fla. (AP) — Cancer keeps intruding upon Jessica Connell’s life.

It happened the first time a decade ago when she was a teen and her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer — and died in 2010.

Then it happened again in 2017 when her dad was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and needed a lifesaving stem cell transplant.

And finally this year: The 29-year-old single mother of two young daughters has been waging a battle against her own breast cancer since January.

Through every trial and tribulation — from the months of rigorous chemotherapy that left her too sick to care for her kids to the financial hardships imposed by this unforgiving disease — Connell has remained upbeat.

“I never imagined I would have to go through this at my age,” she says. “But now that it’s my reality, I have no choice but to make the best of it.”

Interest in the military

When Connell — who grew up in Boca Raton — was attending Boca Raton High, “an Army representative told us about the benefits of enlisting. I was immediately interested.”

She joined the ROTC and, upon graduating in 2007, joined the Army. She became a diesel mechanic, was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and was thriving as a soldier.

“And that’s when my mom got sick.”

Connell’s parents had divorced (her dad had remarried), and her two younger siblings were still in middle school, so she felt she had need to fill the void left by her mom’s illness.

“As the only adult caregiver in the household, I was given a hardship honorable discharge,” she explains of leaving the military life she’d grown to love.

At 19, she now had to be quasi-parent to her sister and brother — as well as her mom’s full-time caregiver.

Unfortunately, Linda Connell’s triple-negative, BRCA-positive breast cancer didn’t respond to surgery or chemotherapy and spread quickly.

“My mom fought as hard as she could — but she was suffering at the end,” Connell says of her mom’s battle, which ended in December 2010.

Life after Mom

Now Connell had to be the breadwinner for the family.

She bought a small house in Greenacres, joined the Army Reserves and worked as an armed security guard — all while shepherding her siblings through high school.

But as her sister and brother became increasingly self-sufficient, Connell found herself with more free time. To cope with the anguish over her mother’s death, she concedes, “I started partying a lot during this time.”

That all stopped when her daughter Leila, 5, was born.

“When Leila came along, she became my top priority.”

Two years later, Connell had Briella, now 3.

“I would do anything for my daughters.”

She juggled her work schedules — and enlisted her siblings, half-siblings and extended family to help with baby-sitting.

When Leila and Briella were old enough for day care, Connell took a job at the day care center to make the services more affordable.

But she knew she needed a career that would secure her family’s future, so in June 2016, “I enrolled in the Palm Beach State (College) police academy.”

More battles with cancer

Connell graduated from the academy in February 2017 and began applying to police departments.

But her dad’s cancer interrupted her job search: “We all banded together to take care of him.”

Since undergoing a stem cell transplant in the summer of 2017, Connell’s father “has been doing much better.”

By last fall, Connell was ready to resume her law enforcement job search in earnest.

“I felt great and was in the best shape of my life.”

And then she felt a lump in her right breast.

With her family history — her mother’s sister also had breast cancer — she feared the worst.

In January, those fears were confirmed by her doctor at a VA hospital: “I was given the exact same diagnosis as my mom: triple-negative, BRCA-positive — and it had spread to my lymph nodes.”

She immediately began aggressive weekly chemotherapy treatments that lasted until July. Unable to work even odd jobs — much less at her daughters’ day care center — Connell feared she’d be unable to pay her bills and put food on the table.

But those fears were allayed when she was put in contact with the charitable advocacy organization Cancer Alliance of Help & Hope.

The alliance provides financial assistance to local cancer patients so they can meet their everyday expenses while concentrating on their treatment and recovery.

Mortgage or rent payments, utility bills, insurance premiums, groceries and toiletries — the folks at the Cancer Alliance cover all that and more.

“I don’t know where I’d be without CAHH,” says Connell. “They not only took care of the household needs, but they got me wigs when I went bald and were always calling to check on me and see how I was doing. They’ve given me both financial and emotional support.”

Connell is so grateful for the assistance that she’s attended CAHH fundraising events to share her story.

The organization’s CEO Stanton Collemer is especially fond of Connell and her children: “Jessica is an inspiration. She has been dealt a horrible hand but continues to stay upbeat and positive every step of the way. We are so happy to be able to help her so she can concentrate on her cancer treatment and being with her daughters.”

The support continued after Connell underwent a double mastectomy at the University of Miami Sylvester Cancer Institute in August and will be there when she begins a six-week round of radiation treatments at the end of this month. She’ll eventually have reconstructive surgery.

Because of Connell’s genetics, her doctors also recommended she get a hysterectomy when she’s able.

But Connell’s not concerning herself with that right now. Her first goal is to be deemed cancer-free after the radiation.

Then she wants to get back in the same kind of shape she was in when she graduated from the police academy.

“Before I got sick, I was a workout fiend, in the gym all the time.”

And once she’s regained her fitness, Connell “will start applying to police departments again. I really want work in this field and make a difference in people’s lives.”

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Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com

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