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9 minute read

Searching for Silver Linings

Jessica Huneycutt

Jessica Huneycutt, Saints Yoga Instructor and this year’s Moonlight & Miracles featured patient, shares her story of pain and perseverance.

What does it mean to survive? The answer might depend on who you ask. For some, perhaps it comes down to meeting the most basic of necessities, while for others, perhaps it’s more about finding communities that support us through thick and thin.

If you asked Jessica Huneycutt to define survival, she’d say that it goes much further than that — survival is taking the challenges life presents and making the most of them. It’s finding the silver linings in the most terrible situations and using them as thread to stitch ourselves back together. Survival is turning pain into passion; it’s turning adversity into adventure. It might sound cliché, but such philosophies have carried Jessica through some of her most challenging experiences. Take, for instance, the first major turning point in her life, when she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint at just 14 years old.

Up to that point, she’d been an incredibly active person, spending her free time training as a competitive swimmer in hopes to one day reach the Olympics. But the assault — and the feeling that she couldn’t tell anyone about it — led to the sudden and complete depletion of all her hopes and motivations.

“From age 14 to 24, I never told anybody what happened,” Jessica said. “But I went from being a junior Olympic swimmer and straight-A student to running away from home, developing an eating disorder, depression, anxiety…all of it. It was basically a decade of a really hard life.”

Through that trying time, Jessica turned toward prescription medications to treat her anxiety and depression. While they were “absolutely lifesaving” at the time, she was determined to find another solution, one that would set her on the path toward true healing.

“We get caught up in the day-to-day, in the trivialities of life. I just want to encourage people to step back and ask ourselves, ‘What really matters? What do I care about? What do I want to do? What legacy do I want to leave?

“It was when I was pregnant with my son, Dylan, that I started practicing yoga. And that was the catalyst for so much change in my life,” Jessica said. “It was not an overnight thing, but I found so much strength and hope and healing through the practice of yoga. Through studying nutrition, through meditation, through positive psychology and just really exploring all of these alternative and complementary therapies, I was able to get myself off all prescription medication and start to heal and feel whole again.”

In her own way, Jessica had reclaimed the power that had been taken from her, discovering along the way a new approach to growing her spirit and her mind. That change came at just the right time, too, for there were more obstacles on the road ahead, and the power of her newly found positive thinking was put to the ultimate test.

“I was in a jungle after a week-long yoga retreat. I just traveled around by myself, and I was trying to find this new sense of direction in the throes of divorce,” Jessica said. “I remember sitting there and suddenly telling myself, ‘I have to get back to New Orleans. How can I possibly do that? Who can I teach yoga to that would allow me to even make a living as a single mother?’ And I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to be the yoga teacher for the Saints. They just don’t know it yet.’” It was certainly a lofty goal, but that she could achieve it was never a doubt in Jessica’s mind; however, there was another factor she had to consider. In 2015, her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, a creeping and long-undetected illness that had begun in her breasts and manifested in her bones as Stage IV. By the time the cancer was discovered, doctors gave Jessica’s mother two years to live, which left the newly single mother at a crossroads: should she go to New Orleans and pursue this new spark of inspiration, or should she go to Virginia, where her mother was living out her last days?

“I told [my mother] how I was thinking about moving back home to Virginia, and she just said, ‘No, Jessica, go for it. It’s probably not going to happen — I don’t want you to get your hopes up, and don’t let your spirit be crushed — but you should go to New Orleans and try.’ And I did.”

Getting the job was a challenge. There was simply no precedent in the NFL for yoga, but Jessica was determined and diligent: she showed up at the Saints practice facility for four consecutive days, waiting in the lobby with a report detailing the athletic benefits of practicing yoga until she was finally granted a meeting with the strength coach. The interview lasted two hours, and Jessica made a convincing case — six months later, she was invited back and offered a position as the official New Orleans Saints Yoga Instructor.

“I remember calling my mom and telling her. She was a lifelong professor and had dedicated her life to teaching, so she was elated that I was somewhat following in her footsteps,” Jessica said. “She was so proud.” When it was time to say goodbye, Jessica traveled to Virginia to be with her

mother during her final moments. The experience was deeply emotional, and she spent several months in a suspended state of shock.

Later that year, in August 2018, Jessica began to feel like something wasn’t right. After all the time she’d spent getting in touch with her body and learning to heed the signs it presented to her, instinct now told her she needed to investigate further.

“At first, I thought, ‘Maybe I’m just depressed. I’ve lost my mother, and maybe I need to go back on antidepressants,’” she said. Just to be safe, she went into a nearby clinic to make sure the breast cancer that had claimed her mother’s life wasn’t a genetic issue. The doctor did an exam and said, ‘Well, I don’t feel anything, there’s no lump, you’re under 40, and we don’t do mammograms under 40.’”

Deciding to trust the opinion of the medical professional who’d evaluated her, Jessica went about her regular life, trying to put that uneasy feeling to rest. It didn’t go away — and that November, she found a lump. This time, she was taking no risks, and she turned to Ochsner for treatment.

“I did the mammogram, and then they did a biopsy,” Jessica said. “It was January 14, 2019 that I found out that I did, indeed, have cancer. And so that on the heels of my mother’s death less than a year before…it was shocking, to say the least.”

The day she found out was a Monday, the same day she was scheduled to help the Saints recover after the Sunday game. She did her best to hold it together, but the news proved too much to bear.

“At the end of the yoga session, when we were in the final resting pose, just lying flat, breathing deeply and relaxing, I remember bursting into tears,” Jessica said. “Obviously I have never burst into tears at work. And that day I did, and I remember them saying, ‘Jess, what’s wrong?’ and I said, ‘I have cancer. I don’t know what’s going to happen, or if I’m going to be able to be here with you again.’” The Saints, though, had come to see Jessica as a part of their team, and they immediately offered her their support and encouragement.

Jessica had a double mastectomy the following month, which was followed by another minor operation to remove more tissue and a final procedure to implant synthetic breasts. Looking back, she said she feels lucky: because her cancer was detected relatively early, the surgeries were enough to remove the cancer and did not require radiation and chemotherapy.

“I was safely able to avoid that,” Jessica said. “And that was the turning point for me, mentally and emotionally, where I thought, ‘Okay, now all I have to do is get through these surgeries, and I’m going to be okay.” Once again, she found that searching for the good in the situation and reaching that “It could be worse”

moment was all she needed to free herself and move forward. The experience — and the fear — were still fresh, but somehow, Jessica was optimistic.

“Since June, it’s just been a matter of healing,” she said. “And again, for me, that’s been through the lens of yoga. Even though I could only participate in about 20 percent of the physical practices, just the teachings and the learnings and the breathing exercises were so healing and pivotal for me.”

Part of that healing also includes this year’s Moonlight & Miracles Gala, where Jessica was the featured patient and told her story of resilience to thousands of guests. Sharing such intimate details in a public setting might seem daunting, but it’s part of Jessica’s ethos to be an open book in the hopes that her journey can inspire and guide others who have been through — or may one day go through — a similar experience. More than that, proceeds from the Gala directly fund cancer research and innovation, and in light of the care she received, Jessica feels it is her duty to return that generosity however she can.

“Ochsner has been amazing in supporting me and working with me. The physical challenges meant very little in comparison to the emotional support and the feeling of having the entire team behind me,” she said. “I try to dedicate as much time as possible for all of the positives that Ochsner has, through speaking and teaching events for them and raising money — just really doing as much as I possibly can to give back.” It might seem strange, but Jessica said she feels the cancer was, in some way, a blessing: it was an opportunity to refocus, to take a hard look at her dreams and try her hardest to make them a reality. It’s a perspective that didn’t come easily, but she said that with the invaluable support of the

Saints and her care team at Ochsner, she has come out of the experience stronger than ever. She is ready to persevere. She is ready to channel all her energy into spreading hope and compassion to as many people as possible. Compared to what she’s been through, it even seems easy.

“We get caught up in the day-to-day, in the trivialities of life,” Jessica said. “I just want to encourage people to step back and ask ourselves, ‘What really matters? What do I care about? What do I want to do? What legacy do I want to leave?’”

And that, Jessica said, is what it really means to survive.

If you would like to support cancer research and pat ient care at Ochsner Cancer Institute, please visit ochsner.org/oci or contact Anna Combes, Director of Development, at acombes@ochsner.org.