FOSTER — Jennie Barnett Cook believes it was the support of her family and community that ultimately helped her move past a breast cancer journey that began in 2018.
Jennie, 50, bragged on Boone County residents.
“I know we have our problems in this county just like everyone does,” she said. “But when there is a need, people rally around one another and fill that need. They don’t ask questions or make you feel uncomfortable. They just help. I’m very proud of where I’m from.”
The native of the Newport Road area of Boone County graduated from Scott High in 1989.
Working as a long-term substitute teacher at Brookview Elementary School at the time, Cook found out about her diagnosis in the middle of a workday.
“I found out at school during the day,” she said. “It was the day before we were leaving for Memorial Day weekend, and I decided to call from school to get my lab results from a biopsy. When she came on the phone she (sighed) and I said, ‘Don’t you dare do this to me,’ and she said that she was sorry that it was cancer.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC) — sometimes called infiltrating ductal carcinoma — is the most common type of breast cancer.
“It had left where it was supposed to be and spread outside where it should be,” she said. “The women in my family really hadn’t faced many health problems, and my news came through a routine yearly checkup or I may not have known. Who knows?”
Jennie said she found Principal Jay Hill and told him that she needed to leave.
“I found him with a group of other teachers, and they could tell by my face something was wrong, and I told them I had breast cancer. I just blurted it out.”
She said that the group all cried together.
“They offered to drive me home, and I told them I’d be fine but I had to go and wrap my mind around this.”
The educator and mother of Tanner and Sophie (who were in fifth and sixth grade at the time of her diagnosis) said it was her husband, Jamie, who put the situation in proper perspective.
“He has a way of doing that,” she said. “He had the kids, and they were in Charleston somewhere, and I told them to go have a good time, and I asked him not to tell them. He said that they were coming home and that he’d told the kids.”
He told his wife, “I don’t know why women act like they are ashamed to have breast cancer and don’t want to talk about it. You are telling people because your girlfriends can help you more than I can.”
Jennie said when she returned to work the following week that the entire Brookview Elementary staff had gathered in the library and asked her to attend.
“They told me that they knew that I haven’t told a lot of people about my breast cancer and that they were about to ‘out me’ to everyone,” she said laughing. “They had me a benefit bingo event to raise money and people were going to find out. I just started crying.”
She added, “My first thought was that Jamie has a good job, and we have good health insurance, and we’ll be fine.”
Jennie said she didn’t realize what her friends knew to be true — even with two gainfully employed people and health insurance, it would be an expensive journey.
“I’m a fighter, and I know how to fight,” she said. “This is just another fight. That is what I told myself. I leaned on my faith in God, and so many came to my side to help any way they could. I really believe people are put in our lives for a reason.”
Fellow educator and friend Kim Lay organized the fundraiser and contacted the Scott High Class of 1989.
She asked the class if they wanted to donate a basket to the event.
“Not only did they do that, they sold T-shirts and so much more to raise money,” she said. “It makes me cry to even talk about it.”
The work of the community did not go to waste.
“We were going back and forth to Cleveland, and Jamie was off of work for a little while, and everything just came to a stop for us,” she said. “Your life just gets put on hold.”
The family made routine camping trips with Jamie, as he works as a field supervisor in the construction industry and travels to multiple states. She wanted to make her surgery and post-operation treatments as normal as possible for their children.
Jamie has family who lives near Cleveland, so they considered staying with family while Jennie trekked to and from The Cleveland Clinic.
The family took their camper to Ohio and hitched it at a local campground.
“It was a normal thing for the kids and us,” she said. “It just felt like a normal summer for them. We actually paid our lot rent for the summer with the money raised by my Class of 1989. We could live anywhere in the country with his job, but we choose to be here because we are surrounded by people like that.”
Jennie suggested that for anyone faced with a diagnosis, utilizing talented friends is very helpful.
“So many of my friends are nurses,” she said. “Sharon Canterberry was really there for me, and she put me in touch with a breast cancer navigator in Colorado named Sharon Hollah.
“She answered so many questions for me and helped me understand what to expect, it was incredible,” she said. “It is important to have access to someone like that.”
In May 2021, Jennie faced another medical challenge when her thyroid was removed after she had trouble swallowing and felt the presence of something. She knew something wasn’t right, and she wasted no time.
The tumor proved to be benign.
“There were some cells left behind from the surgery that had caused me to have elevated numbers in my blood work, but I am doing well now,” she said. “Prior to understanding that, I was really concerned.”
Jennie said the best advice she can offer beyond regular breast exams comes with having the courage to ask questions and not take “no” for an answer.
“You have to be your own advocate, and knowledge is power,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for a test or to ask for an explanation of your lab work. If you have a feeling something isn’t right, don’t stop until you get answers. I also found it helpful to record the updates from my surgeon. It helped me to review it afterwards because there is so much information to absorb it can be overwhelming. This way, you can really dig into it.”
Since her cancer journey began, Jeannie pursued graduate school and earned a master’s degree in special education. She teaches full-time at Madison Elementary School.
Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at 304-307-2401.