Stories from Survivors

Pleural Mesothelioma Survivor Continues to Beat the Odds

Written By:
Sep. 29, 2021
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Written By: Tim Povtak,
September 29, 2021

Pleural mesothelioma may have pushed Doug Jackson into an early retirement – abruptly ending the teaching and coaching career he loved – but it didn’t stop him from living with a purpose.

Life for the Wyoming resident just changed – considerably.

Instead of teaching math and coaching three sports at Wheatland Middle School – where he was revered – Jackson today helps maintain a 1,000-acre family ranch an hour north of town, erecting fences, tending cattle, cleaning stock tanks and building equipment sheds.

It’s a different labor of love now.

“I work hard there. I get sore when I’m out on the ranch, but mesothelioma hasn’t kept me from doing what I want to do,” Jackson said. “I’m just getting older – and my age limits me a little – but I guess that’s a good thing. I understand how fortunate I’ve been to last this long.”

Pleural mesothelioma survivor Doug Jackson and his dog outdoors
Doug Jackson on the family ranch in Wyoming.

Jackson, 66, already has beaten the odds and become an inspirational mesothelioma survivor, one of the few whose aggressive surgery seems to have stopped this tough-to-beat cancer with no definitive cure.

He was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in December 2016. This September, he was watching his grandson play high school football. That in itself is a victory.

“They say only 10% of those diagnosed make it to five years. I’m a math teacher, so numbers mean something to me. I’m almost there,” he said. “My wife and I never thought we’d reach this point. We had little hope at first. I’ve been blessed in a lot of ways.”

Finding a Mesothelioma Specialty Center Was Key

Jackson credits thoracic surgeon Dr. David Rice and his team at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for making this new lifestyle possible. He credits his wife Cindy for leading him there.

Mesothelioma survivor Doug Jackson with wife Cindy
Pleural mesothelioma survivor Doug Jackson and his wife Cindy.

After initially being told at a well-regarded, closer-to-home cancer center that his life expectancy was little more than a year, even with surgery, he seriously considered doing nothing at all.

But Cindy Jackson continued looking for a mesothelioma specialty center. Her earlier battle with cancer provided perspective for them both.

“She said as long as it’s someplace warm, we’ll go anywhere to get what you need,” Jackson said with a smile. “She wasn’t going to let me give up.”

They soon found what they wanted, almost 1,100 miles away, with a three-hour drive to the Denver airport and a two-hour flight to Houston.

“We talked to an oncologist there, and it was so much different than the previous place. He looked at everything and said, ‘I think we can cure this.’ That was uplifting, right there,” Jackson said. “Everything was so positive. It gave you confidence.”

Jackson first underwent four months of chemotherapy much closer to home in Fort Collins, Colorado, which shrank the tumor burden. In May 2017, Rice performed a major pleurectomy and decortication surgery that lasted six-and-half hours and included taking out part of one lung.

Pleural mesothelioma survivor Doug Jackson with family
Mesothelioma survivor Doug Jackson and his wife Cindy with their grandchildren.

Checkups Have Been Encouraging 

Soon after returning home, Jackson was hospitalized with complications, but he wasn’t down for very long. By the end of the year he was out on the ranch in his all-terrain vehicle, tending to broken fencing, rattlesnakes and coyotes that were threatening newborn calves.

He returned to MD Anderson every six months for CT scans that have shown no signs of recurrence. Instead of getting weaker as the months pass, Jackson has gotten stronger.

On his last visit in August, Rice extended his next checkup to a year later.

“I’ve never gotten to the point where I say, ‘I can’t do this,’ because I was sick,” he said. “My life has been very fulfilling since mesothelioma. It’s the memories that you make for yourself that keep you going.”

Since surgery, he and his wife have traveled considerably, taking a family vacation to Hawaii and multiple trips to his favorite stop, Las Vegas.

From Gloom to Glory

Jackson was inducted into the Wyoming Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2018, which honored him for 35 years of coaching various sports, boys and girls, on the high school and middle school levels. The pinnacle was his state championship wrestling team at Wheatland High in 1989.

When he retired shortly after his mesothelioma diagnosis in 2017, parents and students held a benefit for him, honoring his almost four decades with the school system. A school staff member, after hearing about the diagnosis, sent a sympathy card to the family thinking Jackson already had died. She also called the house and was stunned when he answered the phone.

“It’s a small town, and everyone knew about the diagnosis,” Jackson said. “They even tell me now, ‘I can’t believe you’re still here.’”

Six months after he was diagnosed, shortly after surgery, Jackson was busy clarifying power of attorney paperwork for his wife, making his own funeral arrangements and deciding who would speak at the closing ceremony. He thought the end was near.

“I wasn’t OK knowing I was probably going to die soon, but I was prepared mentally that it was going to happen,” he said. “Things have changed.”

Jackson believes an early diagnosis at a relatively young age has played a major role in his good fortune and extended his survival. His family support also has been huge.

“I really feel blessed to have made it this far. Thank God for a family that has supported me,” he said. “I haven’t made it easy for them, that’s for sure. Even when you think you’re doing well, it’s mentally taxing. For a couple weeks before every CT scan, I’m a nervous wreck and hard to get along with.”

Jackson gives considerable credit to a mental health counselor he has met with regularly since returning home from surgery more than four years ago. It’s one reason he lives every day now to the fullest. It’s why he spends considerable time on the ranch, getting things done.

“Sometimes I’ll run into someone who I haven’t seen in quite a while, and they’ll say, ‘Gosh, you still look good,’” he said. “I guess, considering I was supposed to be dead by now, I do look pretty good.”

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