Catherine Jackson: Queen of Swing

She’d beaten cancer once before, so when it returned, she knew exactly what to do: Dance.

Hearing the unthinkable

What would you do if doctors suddenly diagnosed you with Stage 3C gastric cancer? Maybe you’d stew, sob, or scream. Or maybe you’d build a bucket list and cross off all the items you can. Neither path proved to be quite right for 59-year-old Catherine Jackson. She isn’t the sulking type, for starters. Plus, her whole life has already been one big bucket list.

She went with Option #3: Put up a hell of a fight while having the most fun possible.

Jackson had already beaten the Big C once before. In 2010, she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a non-invasive breast cancer. One mastectomy, 15 months of immunotherapy, and seven breast reconstructions later, she had defeated her foe.

"Doctors said there was a 95 percent chance I would never have to worry about cancer again," she says. By 2018, after years of remission and resuming her whirlwind life, Jackson had stopped fearing that other 5 percent. A fitness fanatic and frequent traveler, she had returned to cycling across France, exploring Australia, and fulfilling her slightly less exotic duties as a paralegal. For the renaissance woman from Amelia Island, Florida, all was right again. The bad stuff was behind her.

But that spring, after some pesky acid reflux persisted, Jackson had an endoscopy to see if the problem was more pressing. On April 30, she received her answer: cancer. Again. This time in her stomach. Later, she learned it had spread to her lymph nodes and liver. Earlier in 2019, doctors told her it was Stage 4: terminal.

"You never imagine you’re going to hear those words," says Jackson. "I asked them, 'How much time do I have?' And they said, 'No matter how much, it’s never enough.'"

Finding hope through community

After the initial diagnosis in 2018, Jackson knew the treatment plan would test her body and mind. She didn’t want cancer to define her—or suck the life out of every day. She wanted to give herself something to look forward to, something to smile about, so she joined a West Coast swing dancing club.

A year earlier, Jackson had fallen for the niche form of dance—a freestyle fusion of several styles, from hip-hop to salsa. It’s no surprise she adapted quickly: the longtime dancer once owned a Latin nightclub. In addition to discovering another way to stay active, she also found family in the inclusive Jacksonville West Coast Swing Club.

"They don’t care how old you are, what you look like, or if you’re gay or straight," Jackson says of her swinging friends. "All they really want to do is dance. It’s the most welcoming community I’ve ever been a part of."

Jackson struck a bond with her instructor, Derek Leyva. She partnered with Leyva in several competitions, including the 2018 Chicago Classic, where their spirited routine to Charlie Wilson’s "Sugar.Honey.Ice.Tea" earned them a third-place finish. She planned to perfect the routine, add more moves to her arsenal, and crush the competitions on her calendar. A month later, she was diagnosed.

But a setback is a setback—not a stop sign. Swing brought Jackson so much joy that, sick or not, she vowed to keep dancing. And while she took a break so her body could get used to the aggressive chemotherapy, she continued practicing in August. "I cried tears of joy," she says. "I was so happy to do something normal again."

She also decided to enter River City Swing in Jacksonville the next month, cancer be damned. "I said, 'You know what? I have muscle atrophy, general fatigue, a feeding tube hanging out of my body, and chemo brain. But I’m going to do my routine, and I don’t care if I fall on the floor. Because it may be the last time I can attempt anything like this.'"

On the big day, Jackson woke up with muscles so sore, she could barely move. But 15 minutes before showtime, two chiropractor friends—part of a crew of 20 pals who bussed in from Amelia Island—worked their massage magic. "I could walk! It was divine intervention," says Jackson. The crowd went crazy for her and Leyva’s routine, and they placed third out of a dozen pairs. "In those three minutes, I wasn’t a sick person," says Jackson. "I was alive."

What came next moved Jackson even more. For the finale, Leyva and a partner surprised her with a choreographed routine to a remix of Destiny Child’s "Survivor" in her honor. "It was this amazing show of love, support, and kindness," she says. "I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life."

Battling cancer, again

In October, Jackson had her stomach removed, as well as part of her liver and 18 lymph nodes. While the post-surgery chemo was so rough that doctors had to stop treatment before she could complete her full regimen, two things have helped in her recovery.

The first secret weapon: Kate Farms. Jackson’s original formula was "nothing but chemicals and sugar," she says, which made her feel terrible. But after transitioning to Kate Farms, she immediately felt healthier, more energetic, and gained an extra 10 pounds before her gastrectomy. "I’m telling you: I’d be dead without it," says Jackson. "There’s no doubt in my mind it was instrumental in keeping me alive during that period."

And now that she’s learning to eat orally again, her trusty Kate Farms Nutrition Shake shakes save the day. "When you’re so sick, your body is being eaten alive. To know I have one healthy component on my side is really important."

The second secret weapon, of course, is swing. Jackson is back to taking weekly private lessons with Leyva, savoring every dance step and concocting a new routine for future competitions.

"You have to have a goal in order to keep going," she says. "You have to give yourself something to look forward to every day."

It was brought to our attention that Catherine passed away in July, 2019. Our thoughts and condolences go out to her family and loved ones.

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