All photos c/o St. Petersburg photographer, Christina Marie Photography.

At Bellhop, we encounter people at many different stages in life. Jana’s story touched us, and we thought it might touch you, too.

jana and mark

Jana Keil and her husband Mark were facing a major renovation to their older home on Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Both in their 50s, they were looking to simplify their lives, and a project this monumental was not something they wanted to tackle. So, they decided moving to a smaller, newly-built house in downtown Chattanooga would be a lot less work and headache, and, in the long run, a lot less maintenance.

Little did they realize that the complications they tried to avoid in house repairs would manifest into something much worse.

When Jana’s doctor called her at work to tell her the results of some testing she had done a few days prior, she almost passed out at what he told her.

It was Stage 3 breast cancer, which meant she would have to start treatment immediately.

“The first thing I thought was, OK, what’s going to happen to my family if I don’t make it?” Jana says. And then she began to get dizzy. She had lost her father to prostate cancer in 2011, and the thought of losing him made her worry even more about whether or not she would survive

Bellhop - "Best Movers Ever'

Jana called Mark to tell him the news. Later that night, they went to dinner with Jana’s cousin, and the three of them huddled around a table at a downtown restaurant, cried during the entire meal. In the midst of dealing with her illness, Jana and Mark still had to manage the logistics of their move, since their new house was still being built. Since it would still be six months until it was finished, they would have to temporarily rent an apartment.

“OK, I’ve got cancer,” Jana remembers thinking. “Can I still buy a house? Will I have a job in six months? What’s going to happen?”

Two days after she and Mark moved into their small apartment, Jana began chemotherapy.

“The mountain home was a lovely retreat that required a lot of upkeep,” Jana says. Once we found the home we wanted, the momentum and excitement overshadowed any emotional connections we had. We made the mental turn and never really looked back.”

Jana’s chemo treatments were every three weeks, for a total of six sessions, starting in September of 2016 and ending in January 2017. “I went through this process in which they pumped all of this stuff into my body, and then I would go home and just try to survive the next few days. And then, after about eight or nine days, I would start to feel better, but by that time I would have to go back. It messed with my mind. I would think, I’m going to let them do this to me again?”

jana sitting on couch

Jana says this time was also hard on Mark. They prayed that it would work and be over soon. They took it one day at a time.

The Better Way to Move

Within three weeks of starting her chemo, Jana’s hair had fallen out, which was devastating for her. “I cried probably more than just a little bit because it felt like everything was being taken away from me and I had no control over anything, she says. “The impact of the diagnosis and treatment happened so fast. It’s like being sucked into a riptide. I was immediately immersed. Life as I knew it was stripped away and replaced with a body that began to fail, a face I didn’t recognize, a home I had never lived in and a fear unlike any I had ever known.”

As a way to gain a sense of control, and after discussing it with Mark, Jana decided to shave her head. To support her, Mark shaved his head and sent her a photo of himself while she was at work. He texted, “We’re going to do you when you get home.”

Jana and Mark called their temporary apartment Camp Chemo, and it became a safe haven for Jana as she progressed through her treatment. Not only was it close to the hospital but it also provided the kind of simple living she needed in order to focus on her treatment and getting better. There, she could retreat to the darkness of her bedroom during the rough days, and help Mark pick out colors and materials for their new home on the better days.

Her last day of chemo was also her birthday, which was also the birthday of a nurse she had bonded with during her treatment. The staff celebrated with pink decorations and cupcakes.

After her chemo, Jana’s doctors declared her free of cancer, and a few weeks later, she and Mark moved into their finished house. They considered it a chance to leave that period of Jana’s life behind. Their new house would be a symbol of a new life.

jana with hope blanket

Though Jana is cancer-free, her team of doctors keeps track of her recovery every three months. This follow-up period lasts for five years, at which time the risk of recurrence is minimal.

Jana is a religious woman, and during her cancer journey. A belief she’s had for decades is that God sends her pennies as a reminder of His blessing. She remembers that the week of her move, she found penny after penny at her feet. Then, at her first doctor appointment, she saw a large, glass jar full of pennies. These moments provided comfort to her, reminding her to have faith. And she did.

jana and mark

Now that they’ve settled into their new home, Jana and Mark consider their new way of life the new normal. They no longer have to worry about things breaking around the house from age, or yard maintenance, since they don’t have a yard, which frees up time to hang out with their neighbors, or have their children and grandchildren over, or just enjoy each other’s company.

jana keil sitting at table

“It’s a sense of lightness,” Jana says. “We left the darkness behind.”

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Harrison Stevens