Beating Back the Cancer Curse

Posted November 21, 2007 at 2:59pm



Correction Appended

The decor of Jen Waller’s basement apartment, just three blocks from the Capitol, bespeaks the political junkie she became on July 6, 1999. The typical framed and signed photographs — of boss Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), former President Bill Clinton and one-time employer Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), among others — fill a ledge that runs through her living room and kitchen.

But in the past several weeks these images have been overtaken by nearly 100 greeting cards, strung one by one on ribbon and string, that now festoon the diminutive space from floor to ceiling. Cards from other Democratic and Republican Capitol Hill staffers and from people back home in the Mississippi Delta.

Waller was diagnosed with breast cancer during the August recess. And when the chemotherapy treatments she started in October drain her energy, she rereads the cards arranged by her brother, Hayden Hall, 26, who moved his life from the family’s tiny hometown of Clarksdale, Miss., to Waller’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

“When Sis got sick I wanted to be here, if she’s going through this,” says Hall, sitting on a burgundy and cream sofa in Emanuel’s private hideaway, where Waller works as the Congressman’s chief scheduler.

Waller, who is 37, felt a lump in her breast this summer. Her doctor scheduled a mammogram. It found nothing.

During a follow-up appointment on Aug. 6, she had a sonogram on the right breast.

“The doctor still couldn’t find that lump,” says Waller, lilting and lingering on each syllable like they do in Clarksdale. “She was rubbing the little jelly thing around, and she said, ‘Are you sure?’ And I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, it’s right here. I can feel it.’”

All of a sudden, Waller remembers, “she looked at me. If y’all had seen her face. She asked, ‘How long has this been here?’”

Waller wasn’t sure. “In all honesty, I haven’t been very vigilant about checking my breasts, you know, every month. I’d had a physical the year before in October.”

The pace of doctor visits quickly picked up. By that Friday, Aug. 10, she had a biopsy. “I got on the Metro, went to Bethesda and got the biopsy by myself,” she says. “And then I got back on the Metro and came home and sat on my couch.”

On Saturday, she flew to Mississippi, a trip already planned for the August break.

She told only her brother.

Just three months later, the cancer is no secret to anyone and is now a part of working in Emanuel’s office.

When Waller grew frustrated this month with losing her hair strand by strand, Emanuel’s chief of staff, Liz Sears Smith, dropped by Waller’s home and sheared it off. “It was a little bit traumatic,” Waller says.

One of the Congressman’s daughters, 7-year-old Leah, is growing her hair out so she can donate it to a charity that provides wigs for people undergoing chemotherapy. Emanuel says his daughter asked him, “Do you think Jen would wear my hair?” Emanuel says, in all seriousness, “We’re researching that.”

‘The Fingerprints of God’

On Aug. 13, the second Monday of the August recess, Waller sat with friends at a restaurant in Clarksdale when the phone rang. “Jen, I am so sorry to have to tell you this,” said a doctor on the other end of the phone, “but the labs came back positive for breast cancer.”

She walked down the street and called Hall. Then she told her father, a cancer survivor who that same month was diagnosed with his third round with the disease, this time in the prostate. She told her mom.

“That was probably the worst night of this whole experience,” she says. “I didn’t sleep at all. It’s kind of hard to digest the fact that you, at 37, who think you have your entire life ahead of you … I don’t have kids. I’m like, ‘I’m doing all this fun stuff, and then one day I’m gonna get married and have kids and do my life,’ you know!”

She knew she would have to decide whether to remain in Clarksdale for treatment or to return to Washington, D.C.

“The next morning, at 7:30 a.m., the phone rang,” she says. Waller already had been up for 45 minutes, researching doctors, jotting down options. “It’s Rahm,” she recalls. He needed help arranging a trip to Chicago.

“He’s like, ‘Oh where are you?’ I said, ‘I’m in Mississippi.’ He said, ‘Oh I didn’t realize you were off this week. OK, I’ll call somebody else, don’t worry about it, sorry I called so early.’

“And I said, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. I have to tell you something.’ And he goes, ‘What is it? What’s wrong? Something’s wrong. Are you leaving us?’”

She told him. “He went into total father mode,” says Waller, who has worked for Emanuel since February. “He said, ‘OK, honey, don’t worry, this is going to be fine. We’re going to figure this out.’”

One of Emanuel’s brothers, Ezekiel Emanuel, is an oncologist at the National Institutes of Health. “He said, ‘I’m going to hang up the phone, and I’m going to call Zeke, and I’m gonna tell him what’s going on,’ and he said, ‘Then I want you to call him, we’re gonna get this figured out.’

“And he was like, ‘Jen, you’ve gotta get up here so we can help you. Any family that you need, they will come to you,’ and he really said that. He wasn’t too pushy. You know Rahm can be kinda pushy.”

Rep. Emanuel called back and put his brother and Waller in touch. “I didn’t think one Emanuel in her life was enough,” he said in an interview.

The Congressman’s brother suggested a couple of specialists, including Dr. Sandra M. Swain of the Washington Cancer Institute at Washington Hospital Center, a doctor who already was on Waller’s short list because a friend of Waller’s, Heather Harris, a nurse and a former Hill staffer, works there.

“It’s like you can just sort of see the fingerprints of God all over everything. It’s been amazing,” Waller says. “It’s a scary, horrible situation, but every part of it has been sort of orchestrated or laid out. It really has.”

A Marathon, Not a Sprint

When Waller returned to D.C., she immediately started going to doctors’ appointments, CT scans, PET scans — all to figure out the kind of cancer she had and whether it had spread. Carolyn Berry, the wife of Rep. Berry, accompanied Waller to her PET scan. The two became friends over the year and a half Waller worked as Rep. Berry’s scheduler. Colleagues from Emanuel’s office drove her to and from appointments, and they brought her meals.

On Sept. 14, Waller had a single mastectomy, a surgery that removed all the tissue and cancer, but not the skin, from her right breast as well as 20 lymph nodes.

Cancer has four stages; Waller’s tumor was considered stage 3A because it was an aggressive tumor, called HER2-positive, and because it had spread to four lymph nodes, the bean-like tissues that filter foreign substances from the blood.

About 25 percent of all breast cancers are HER2-positive. Waller’s chemotherapy includes a drug called Herceptin, which targets this particular type of breast cancer.

She will have chemotherapy once a week until early February, then radiation treatment, and, in the spring, reconstructive surgery.

“I think that’s one of the hardest things I’ve learned about the whole cancer ordeal, it’s just nonstop,” she says. “You think you get over this hurdle and then you’re gonna have a lot more hurdles to go. Rahm keeps telling me to remember this is a marathon, not a sprint. ‘Keep running the race.’”

It’s a race that one in eight women in the United States will face. Earlier this year, Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) died of the disease, which is the second-deadliest cancer for women.

Swain, Waller’s doctor, says breast cancer is highly unusual in women under 40, the age at which the American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms begin. The disease often is very curable: “The death rate has dramatically decreased over the last couple of years,” Swain says.

Swain recommends that women work and try to lead as normal a life as possible during treatment. That isn’t always easy. Waller spent the week of Nov. 12 working from home. It’s affected Emanuel, she says, that his main scheduler has been a little out of the loop.

“He’s a high-energy Member,” Waller says. “If I can make myself get up and come in, then I want to come in, then I can forget about my sickness for a little while,” she says. “I love my job. I love working for Rahm.”

The Path to Capitol Hill

Waller got her first experience scheduling a politician in 2003, when she worked for then-Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove’s (D) re-election bid against now-Gov. Haley Barbour (R). After Musgrove’s defeat, Waller signed on with the Democratic National Committee’s scheduling operation, which included handling Gen. Wesley Clark for five weeks. After that, she became Berry’s scheduler, then worked for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), then Emanuel.

But the path to Capitol Hill really began in the summer of 1999. A public school teacher in Mississippi for three years — and the daughter of a schoolteacher — Waller discovered a dream she didn’t know she had.

President Clinton and an entourage of Cabinet officials and aides were making a swing through Clarksdale promoting economic investment in rural areas, inner cities and American Indian reservations. A co-worker recruited Waller to drive a van ferrying Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, Small Business Administrator Aida Alvarez and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“That day changed my life,” Waller says. “No doubt about it. I called my dad up, who’s a huge Republican. I said, ‘Daddy, I think I’m movin’.’ And he goes, ‘Where? Memphis? Jackson?’ And I said, ‘Oh no sir, I’m going to Washington, D.C.’”

Hall, Waller’s younger brother who lived with her during his senior year in high school while their mother struggled with bipolar disorder, had just graduated. “I got him all grown,” she says. “I had decided, I’m just going.”

She spent another year teaching in Mississippi, but by the summer of 2000 she had moved to Washington, where she found a job in the communications shop of the Southern Governors Association.

Hall and his wife, Erica, 24, made a similarly whimsical journey. What was supposed to be a quick visit to Washington after Waller’s September surgery turned into a new life for the couple.

It became a running joke over that short visit that they wanted to move to D.C. Waller took the couple on a tour of the Capitol and included a stop in Berry’s office. They struck up a conversation with Chad Causey, Berry’s chief of staff.

While making small talk with Hall, a professional cook, Causey mentioned that chef and restaurateur Wolfgang Puck was opening a new spot in D.C. called The Source.

The next day, Hall picked up a newspaper while waiting for his sister at a doctor’s office. The first thing he saw was a help-wanted ad for The Source. “I called the number from the doctor’s office,” Hall says. The manager asked if he could be there in an hour.

Hall interviewed with executive chef Scott Drewno, whose mother had been through a battle with breast cancer recently. Drewno told him, “If you want to move up here, you’ve got a job,” Hall says.

By Saturday, Hall and his wife, who had been a dental assistant in Clarksdale, had found an apartment around the corner from Waller’s place.

Again, Causey proved helpful. “We found out that they were coming up, and we just happened to have an opening for a staff assistant,” he says. “I had met Erica and was impressed by her and thought she would make a great staff assistant. It just worked.”

‘Stop By for Gumbo’

It’s Nov. 2, and Waller and sister-in-law Erica Hall arrive on the second floor of the Washington Hospital Center’s Cancer Institute.

It’s Waller’s third Herceptin round. Dressed in a deep-turquoise-blue velour warmup suit, she has brought a batch of celebrity magazines and pink Susan G. Komen breast cancer awareness M&Ms.

After a short wait, Waller and her crew are led back to a small room veiled by a curtain. When the nurse takes Waller’s blood pressure, Erica Hall promptly scribbles it down in a notebook.

A nurse cleans off the port and when she jabs the needle through, Waller jumps and winces. “People that do this, that document their experience, have better outcomes,” the nurse says, scanning the crowded room.

By the time the fluid starts pumping, Waller’s already on her BlackBerry with a colleague in Emanuel’s Illinois office.

Her friend, Heather Harris — the nurse who used to work on the Hill and is married to Hood Harris, the chief of staff for Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) — glides into the room.

“Stop by for gumbo this weekend,” Harris booms.

“We’ll see how I feel,” Waller replies.

Correction: Nov. 26, 2007

Dr. Sandra M. Swain of the Washington Cancer Institute was misidentified in the article.