How I Found a Meaningful Career After Cancer

October 26, 2020
Jacky Costello

Jacky Costello is the founder and owner of a house cleaning company serving the greater Tampa Bay area in Florida. Through her company's partnership with the nonprofit Cleaning for a Reason, which provides free house cleaning for people with cancer, she gives back to others who are living with cancer. She has also written a book about her cancer experience. Jacky currently resides in Lithia, Florida, with her husband Wes, her son Dean, and her best friend Emma. You can follow her on Twitter.

Some people believe 13 is an unlucky number. I was never really that superstitious, but when 2013 came around, I had no idea at the time that it would be the unluckiest year of my life. I was born in Germany, and I lived there during 2013 with my 2-year-old son and my husband, whom I met during his overseas tour in the United States Army. Life honestly could not have been better at the time. Everything went well with my pregnancy, and we were looking forward to having more kids soon. That is, until I began getting irregular results from my Pap tests.

After giving birth, my gynecologist noticed that the cells of my cervix were changing, and not in a good way. She said at the time that it could potentially lead to cancer. At the time, I was also diagnosed with human papillomavirus (HPV), which could contribute to the risk of developing cancer. She had me scheduled for Pap tests every 3 months. After about a year of these tests, things took a turn for the worse. I got a test result that alarmed the doctor, and we both agreed that it was best to do a biopsy of my cervix.

Unfortunately, the biopsy showed I had cervical cancer. I had an aggressive tumor on my cervix, and I needed emergency surgery right away. If it was not removed in time, it could have silently killed me within 3 months. How could this happen? My husband and I were devastated. Not 12 hours after speaking to the surgeon, I was supposed to be on the operating room table. I had no time to think, no time for second or third opinions, and no time for more scans. My only option was to have the surgery, which would remove all chances I had to live my life with a large family. I hugged my son and husband for what surely could have been the last time, and I went stoically into the clinic where my life was changed forever. 

During my surgery, the surgeons performed a radical hysterectomy and removed over 50 lymph nodes in my pelvic area. The good news was that the cancer was totally removed. The bad news was that so were my cervix and uterus. My body wasn't the same. I didn't feel like a whole person anymore. I felt incomplete as a woman, as though I was not sufficient anymore. Knowing, accepting, and living with the reality of never having any more of my own biological kids killed me—and still does, to an extent.

I also had a huge incision, and my recovery was painful. I was in pain for nearly a year, taking all kinds of medicines just to manage my pain to a bearable level. I couldn't work. I couldn't hold my baby. I couldn't cook or do laundry. I needed help with everything, even walking. Over the years, I developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the whole experience. I also developed body dysmorphia, which is a mental health disorder where you can't stop obsessing over 1 or more flaws in your appearance, which may or may not exist. From the outside, it may appear to be a flaw that seems minor or can't even be seen by others. But you may feel so embarrassed, ashamed, or anxious about that flaw that you may avoid social situations or wearing certain types of clothes.

During this painful and trying time, I had to reluctantly learn to accept help, which I wasn't always very good at before my cancer experience. I'm a doer and like to get stuff done, usually on my own. But at the time, I wasn't strong enough, and I needed help with the smallest things. I was incredibly thankful for friends who pitched in to make meals for us, take our son to the playground, drive me to appointments, and for a local church that sent someone to our home to help with chores around the house.

After about a year of painful recovery, my husband and I received word from his work that we would be moving back to the United States. I had never lived there before, and I was incredibly nervous and scared. Although we had been there to visit numerous times together, I realized that I would be without any of my current support system of close friends, family, and doctors.

It was a rough move with lots of ups and down. But after moving from a small, cramped hotel room and settling into our new home, I knew I had to get back to work. We needed the money. But with a 3-year-old son and no extra money for daycare for him, our options were limited. My husband worked 12-hour shifts regularly, both day and night, so the primary responsibility of taking care of our son fell onto me at the time.

I decided to clean homes to make a few extra dollars. It wasn't much, but it was honest work. We were low on funds at the time, so before my first job, we went to the local dollar store to buy some supplies. I bought toilet cleaner, glass cleaner, some all-purpose cleaner, mops, and a small red bucket. I was ready. My first clients had small homes in the area near where we wanted to live. They were always extremely happy with my work and even started recommending me to their friends, family, and neighbors. Eventually, more and more people started sharing my information with their friends and neighbors.

Not long after I started, I made enough money for my son to attend daycare, and I even needed to find someone to help me with my clients because I was getting more work than I could do alone. At that point, I decided to start my own business, called Custom Cleanups. But I also wanted to give back to my community. I began searching for and reaching out to some nonprofit organizations I found online. I came across one that struck me immediately: Cleaning for a Reason. It's a nonprofit based in Texas that partners with cleaning companies nationwide to provide free house cleaning services to people currently receiving cancer treatment. This was it. I contacted them and the rest, as they say, was history. I had always said that I loved my job, but I love it even more when I can help someone during the most difficult time in their life. Cleaning for a Reason allows me to give back to people who are in a similar situation that I experienced. That provides me a sense of purpose and relief that I never got anywhere else.

I feel such pride looking back on where I was 7 years ago when I was lying in a hospital bed, not knowing if I would live or die, compared to where I am now. I am stronger than ever, and I'm proud of myself for never giving up; proud of my family for their endless support; and I'm thankful to God for giving me a second chance. Today, it's my wish to help other patients by lifting them up and motivating them to keep pushing through it all.

If you ever find yourself in a situation like mine, seek help early. This could be through a support group, family, friends, or a professional, but it’s important to get help early. The feelings you may be having while living with cancer—whether those are feelings of inadequacy, incompleteness, or others—are normal, but it will take a lot of effort and mindful healing to overcome them.

Try to find and follow your passions after treatment is done. Find things you may have been too timid or unsure of before your cancer diagnosis and do them, even if it means taking a risk. Don’t talk yourself out of an idea because you think it might be silly. Be adventurous. Try new things. I had a career before cancer that I just knew I didn’t want to go back to after my recovery. You will begin to look at things through a different lens after cancer. I definitely did!

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