When Kimora, 11, and Mariah, 4, got out of bed at 7:00 a.m. on Christmas morning, they threw the Emoji Pals and Trolls bedding from their own beds in their own rooms and, for the very first time, ran to the living room of their own house to see if Santa had stopped by overnight. Their mother, Jessica Sanders, was there to greet them and watch their eyes light up when they saw the new dollhouse waiting for them.
Jessica is even more incredible than a red-suited, jolly old man who can make it to every home in the world in one night. She pulled off the perfect first holiday in their Habitat for Humanity home — despite getting home from a chemotherapy treatment in Atlanta on December 23rd and spending the night of the 24th up late because they were all too excited to sleep.
At 34, Jessica is two years into her cancer treatment. Once every three weeks, she treks down to Atlanta with her father — he hasn’t missed a session yet — to get a new dose of chemotherapy. It makes her nauseated and tired, but it’s nothing she can’t handle.
In fact, Jessica is handling life better than most people who aren’t raising two daughters as a single mother while fighting highly aggressive breast cancer.
She’s vibrant and energetic. Even while facing a lifetime of cancer treatments, she refuses to let cancer win. A lot of people say they refuse to let cancer win, but they just mean they will survive. Not Jessica. She won’t even allow cancer to take over her thoughts for long. There’s no time for that when you’re raising two little girls who keep you on your toes.
That cheery personality doesn’t even falter when she talks about losing her hair — a big deal for most women — from one type of chemotherapy she had early on in her treatment.
“I’ve always worn weaves and wigs and things,” Jessica says with a laugh. “I didn’t care. I still wore wigs all the time.”
Her bubbly voice makes it sound like she’s talking about beating a cold instead of knocking out stage 4 cancer. She’s exactly the kind of person you want to see good things happen to — like having the opportunity to purchase a house from Habitat for Humanity and making a full recovery.
Lion and the Lamb
Like so many in Huntsville, the Sanders are a military family. Jessica’s parents were high school sweethearts who are coming up on 45 years of marriage. Jessica had a happy childhood with three sisters who are still close.
She went to Lee High School before heading off to the University of Alabama in Birmingham to get a degree in Biology. When she came back to Huntsville, she got an additional degree in clinical laboratory, setting her up for a career working in the medical field. That science background has come in handy these last few years spent talking to countless doctors and nurses.
In May 2015, when Mariah was only a year old, Jessica was lying on her bed and felt a lump in her breast. She’d had a mammogram only six months earlier, but she decided to go ahead and have it checked out — just in case.
A biopsy confirmed it was cancer, and an MRI a few months later showed the cancer had spread to her lungs and lymph nodes. At age 32, Jessica was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. If that sounds young to you, that’s because it is. Less than five percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer are diagnosed before they’re 40.
Within six months, the previously healthy, young mother was facing an uncertain future.
“With cancer, you have the lion and the lamb, and some of them are so aggressive that they just take off,” Jessica said. “So that’s what I’m assuming happened to me.”
She immediately had to stop working and move back in with her parents so she could prepare for her battle with cancer. True to her optimistic personality, Jessica said being diagnosed with cancer “makes you kind of depressed — a little bit.”
Understandably, she was concerned about the future. After all, she had two young daughters who needed her. There was a time when Jessica’s worry kept her from sleeping. With sadness, she thought about making a will and getting her affairs in order; all the things you forget about until you’re faced with a health scare.
However, that sadness was short-lived.
“I had decided at first that I wasn’t going to let it rule my life,” Jessica said. “I wasn’t going to think about it all day and sit around and be sad about it, so I had to pick up and move on.”
She dove into her Bible, reading about how God will take care of her no matter what. Looking back, she credits the cancer diagnosis with increasing her faith.
“I just trust that God is going to bring me through — me and my family,” Jessica said. “I have faith that I am healed from the disease. I don’t think I’m going anywhere soon.”
After two years of treatment, Jessica thought she was in the clear. But in August 2017, she felt another lump and learned the cancer had returned. Doctors put her on another form of chemotherapy and told her she would be on it for the rest of her life.
Earlier this month, doctors once again said Jessica was cancer-free. But because the cancer would be aggressive should it return, she continues to receive treatments every three weeks.
“It’s pretty much going to be a battle of mine,” Jessica said. “I don’t like it, but it’s a fight that I have to fight. I want to be around with my children, so … whatever I have to do, I just have to do it.”
Building a Home for Kimora and Mariah
Although Jessica was fine living with her parents —they’re just one of those close families who can face anything together — she wanted her own place for her daughters to grow up. She knew about Habitat for Humanity because one of her sisters earned a home in 1996. Jessica decided to apply for one of her own in February 2016.
Getting a home from Habitat for Humanity isn’t easy. Potential homeowners must complete 350 sweat-equity hours working on their own home, another Habitat for Humanity home or volunteering at an accepted nonprofit. They must also complete a series of classes and money management workshops.
Let that sink in: Jessica helped build her own home while going through aggressive chemotherapy treatments, working, and raising two daughters.
Jessica, Kimora and Mariah moved in to their new home in October, but life has been hectic for the last few months. Jessica has been to Atlanta four times between the time she moved in and Christmas. She also has high standards for herself when it comes to Christmas, noting some shortcomings most parents wouldn’t even think twice about — like how her tree didn’t have all the ornaments on it or how she didn’t have time to unpack the sleigh bells she normally uses to wake the girls up on Christmas morning.
Still, having their own home to wake up in on Christmas morning made this a holiday to remember.
“I was so glad that it was ours. It was ours, (and) it was our first year having that,” Jessica said.
Their first holiday, yes. Their last, definitely not. Jessica, Kimora and Mariah can count on many more perfect holidays in the future — thanks, in part, to Habitat for Humanity of Madison County. Please consider donating to this amazing organization to keep the dreams for more families and more individuals like this alive in 2018. You can donate simply by visiting this link: DONATE.
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