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Survivor Spotlight featuring Jeanie Barkow

11.01.2013 / Blog Posts Breast Cancer Awareness

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Our next special WOW survivor spotlight features Jeanie Barkow, 64, a registered nurse from Hagerstown, Maryland who has been a Redskins fan for most of her adult life and a season ticket holder for the past six years (her daughter secretly put their name on the season ticket holder waitlist and 11 years later received a letter).

Barkow, whose favorite player is Alfred Morris, had no family history of breast cancer when a mammogram revealed a tumor in her right breast in July of 2010. On August 27, 2010, Barkow had a bilateral mastectomy followed by chemo and radiation, which ended in April 2011. Barkow opened up about her experiences as well as her cognitive struggles resulting from the chemotherapy. She also shared some happy news -- she is expecting her first grandchild later this month.

What is your favorite Redskins memory?
Jeanie Barkow: The thing that I love is when they score a touchdown and we sing the song, the Redskins song; that’s my favorite. I just love that. And I love to do the National Anthem at every game; it’s just very, very touching.

What is your game day ritual?
Jeanie Barkow: Our routine is we leave here very early in the morning and I always go to the WOW events before the game. That’s the highlight of my day. I love being there and talking to the women. It’s just wonderful the Snyders do that. It means a lot to me and being in the crowd you know, I mean we’ve watched the Redskins on TV for years but being there and cheering and you know, kind of screaming when the other team has the ball it’s just -- I mean it’s hard to describe to somebody how cool that is.

You worked as a registered nurse. How did you adjust to being a patient?
Jeanie Barkow: I said to myself at the beginning of this process -- I’m a registered nurse and I told myself, “You are not going to be one of these know it all people; you’re going to do as you’re told and follow whatever they tell you to do.” And I did that and you know on the really bad days I’d just say “Okay, just put one foot in front of the other and keep going.” And that’s what I’ve done.

Who was your support system?
Jeanie Barkow: My husband is my main support. He’s driven me to Mercy every single time we’ve gone. It takes us almost two hours to get there. He’s waited for me through all of chemo, all of radiation, all of everything. Initially I was going down two to three times a week. I developed seromas after the mastectomies. He was just my rock. My children don’t live nearby, so they would come but my husband and my friends were my main support. I had a lot of support from friends. There were friends that would send us a meal every time I had chemo because you know, I couldn’t eat for a week and they knew John was hungry. A lot of people prayed for me, sent me cards that were so uplifting. I didn’t count them but I probably have over 300 cards. It’s a very humbling experience. And I’m really grateful for the people that are in my life that were so supportive.

Looking back, what do you wish you knew before your diagnosis?
Jeanie Barkow: Most breast cancers do not have a family history. I was actually six months late getting my mammogram and the doctor said to me, “Well you know you can’t go back. There’s a possibility these tumors are so small that six months earlier nothing might have shown up.” But when people would talk about different things like [family history], I’d always think, “Well my dad has a big family cardiac history; I’ll probably go that way” and when breast cancer would come up I’d think in my mind “Gee at least you’re pretty good on that one, nobody in the family has that.” And I had no idea that it was such a high number of breast cancer patients that have no family history. 

What other issues have you experienced since your treatment?
Jeanie Barkow: I had a pretty hard time during chemo. I was on the way far, far end of the side effects. The oncologist said, “You know the executive functioning of the brain is usually affected, they don’t know what happens.” But it was very dramatic. I really didn’t know anything about “chemo brain” and I said to the nurse when I was there for my third treatment, I said, “Something is wrong with me; my thinking isn’t right.” She said, “Oh you have chemo brain” and she gave me some information on it and by the time I finished treatment I was pretty bad. I have improved. I couldn’t even say a full sentence without stopping to think what I was going to say and I’m much better in that respect.

I was so aware of every deficit. I’ve done Sudoku for years and I would always go to the hard ones and it was many and many months until I could get past the easy ones and I haven’t made it to the hard ones yet; I’m stuck at the medium level. I have a lot of trouble thinking of words and my memory -- somebody will tell me something and a day later I’ll be telling my husband and it’s like I can only remember half of what somebody said and I can’t remember who it was. And I always had a very, very good memory. I mean I could repeat a verbatim conversation three weeks later. So you know I feel it -- I have very significant issues. People that don’t know me very well don’t really know and I don’t even tell my husband some of the things I struggle with. It’s different things all day long every day. I put something down and I think “Okay I think I had that, what did I do with it?” And I mean I know we all have those little things before, but this is on a much, much larger scale.

I have not been able to go back to work. The doctor said he would not release me to go back to work because of the cognitive issues. He’s not sure if I could perform as a registered nurse and that was -- that was earth shattering to me. I said, “Do you realize you’re ending my career?” And he said, “Yes I do.” It was really hard. So you know I still have a lot of residual cognitive issues. I always was a very organized person, you know kept everybody’s schedule straight and got everybody where they always needed to go and I’m not that person anymore and that’s been very hard to accept.

What have you learned about yourself?
Jeanie Barkow: That I’m a strong person. If somebody would have told me I would have to go through what I’ve gone through I would have never thought I could do it. But I kept a positive attitude and I didn’t let the negative thoughts overwhelm me, thoughts like “Gee it was in your lymph nodes; gee you know it’s going to come back maybe some day.” I would say, “Okay, you’ve got to refrain this, you know you’re alive.”

I’m grateful to be alive and I’m loving life. I’ve learned not to take that for granted. I’m thankful everyday for the blessings I have in my life. It sucks that I had cancer, but you just have to embrace all the good things.

How did the Redskins impact your journey?
Jeanie Barkow: I missed not going to the games. I went to -- I went to one game after I started chemo and then I didn’t go to anymore because I was just too sick to go. I could have never walked from the parking lot to the stadium and that was very sad. Going to the games has been wonderful and the WOW events before the games are just so uplifting. I’ve met some lovely people and I’ve talked quite a bit with Mrs. Snyder and she’s just an amazing person. She’s a breast cancer survivor also and we’ve had some talks. And it’s just a support. Last year I had a hysterectomy in September and then I had surgery on my hand in October and I missed a lot of those games and when I finally got to the game the one bartender who I got to know, said, “Where have you been? I’ve been asking everybody where you are.” And Mrs. Snyder said, “Where have you been?” It was just like “wow, people knew I wasn’t there.” It was nice to be thought of.


Jeanie with Mrs. Tanya Snyder at a WOW Pregame Party

If there’s one thing you would share with other  women reading this story, what would it be?
Jeanie Barkow: Get your mammograms. And if I wouldn’t have asked for that MRI I’m not sure I’d be here today because the one tumor would have been taken and the other tumors would have still been there. So I would say you know that you need to be your own advocate and ask questions. I would go into the oncologist and I had a legal pad with three pages of papers filled with questions and you know, after I finished treatment and time went on I brought in a smaller tablet and he asked, “Where’s your legal pad”? Stick up for yourself.

During the month of October --  in conjunction with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” initiative -- we are delighted to introduce a blog series spotlighting breast cancer survivors on WOWRedskins.com. This Breast Cancer Survivor Spotlight Series will share the inspiring stories of these extraordinary women and special WOW members with the Redskins community while continuing to raise breast cancer awareness and educate women about the importance of annual screenings.

Amanda Rykoff is a New York City-based sports writer. She’s a proud Penn alum, recovering attorney, devoted aunt, and voracious consumer of media. She has contributed to espnW.com, The Outside Corner, ONE World Sports, Sports On Earth, The Football Girl and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter (@amandarykoff)

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