I'm A Survivor Cover Story
She came to Tyler as a young, ambitious blonde, with focused green eyes and a direct stage presence. On camera, she was the consummate reporter turned news anchor. Experience as a producer and field reporter gave Jennifer Kielman an air of casual authority during KETK’s evening news. Alongside co-anchor Neal Barton, Jennifer delivered the day’s news with a straightforward style that was neither silly nor girlish, opinionated nor indulgent. She came into our homes and told us other people’s stories.
And so it was stunning to many of us when we first heard her story. Since then, Jennifer has earned the title “Local Hero” through BSCENE Magazine’s Best Of 2011 Reader’s Choice. She was named a 2012-2013 Winner, Local TV Personality in Tyler’s “Locals Love Us.” After telling her story, Jennifer has become more than a news anchor to the people who invite her into their homes every day. She has become a source of support, compassion, and information, and as so many of you have expressed, she has in fact become a hero.
It all began two years ago in October, when Tyler and the rest of the nation were awash in pink. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and each year, cancer survivors, healthcare professionals and advocates remind us to acknowledge this prominent disease affecting both men and women. We are reminded, among other things, to perform self-breast exams, and to have routine mammograms starting at age 40.
“We were doing a lot of stories at work, and you know, it’s one of those things,” said Jennifer on the topic of self-exams. “I’ve never been good about self-breast exams, I don’t know if many women are, honestly. It [cancer] doesn’t run in my family, I was in great shape, took care of myself.” But something was different this year, and the stories that she was covering prompted action. “I remember just thinking randomly, ‘I need to check myself,’ and so I did; and I found a lump.”
Her reaction was swift. “I’d never felt anything like that. I called my mom, and she told me ‘You’re fine, it’s probably just a cyst.’ But my instinct was … I had cancer.”
Jennifer had an annual exam set for two weeks after she found the lump. “At the end of my exam, my doctor asked me if there was anything else I needed to ask about, and I said ‘yes, I found a weird lump in my left breast. Could you look at it?’” After the examination, Jennifer’s doctor recommended a mammogram and ultrasound, and set up the appointments for the following day. “This was all happening so fast. I went back to work afterward, and in the next morning I got up and went in for the mammogram. I was really nervous, because I had never had anything like that before.” When tests came back, the results confirmed something was definitely wrong.
Jennifer said she asked a lot of questions, pressing her doctor for answers and information. “I asked if it looked bad, I asked so many questions… ‘was it this?’” Her doctor recommended a biopsy, and Jennifer asked to have it done right away. “I said I want it done now. Just please do this. They got me in two hours later, and I remember walking, knowing I had to have this biopsy that day. First, I walked out into the waiting room, I was a mess. I called my mom, and within two hours she was at my doorstep.
“So two hours later, I was lying on this table waiting to have a biopsy, and my doctor, he was so sweet, and my head was just spinning because I knew this wasn’t good; you just know. Within 10 minutes, I looked at him and asked ‘does this look bad?’ He told me it did not look good. I was just devastated.”
Jennifer’s results wouldn’t come back for a couple days, but her doctor left her with an ominous warning, encouraging Jennifer as she was leaving to prepare herself.
Accepting the possibility of having cancer was tough for Jennifer. “Before I was diagnosed, I’d never had surgery, never a broken bone, never been in the hospital, never had chicken pox; I was the picture of health. I ate healthfully and I exercised regularly. So to be diagnosed with something so life-threatening and major; it flipped my world. There was no way this was happening to me. Things like this don’t happen to me. Everything was going so well in my life. I was in love, I had a great job, I thought I was invincible. I was also naïve. I was faced with something I never thought would or could ever happen to me.”
She began to think about the implications of the disease on all of the things she loved most. “I was horrified. So many things kept running through my head – am I going to die, how am I going to beat this, what do I tell my family, what do I tell my boyfriend, what do I tell my friends, is this going to affect my job? That was a big one. I love my job. I have worked hard to get to where I am. I’ve been in this business for almost nine years.”
Jennifer knew that she wanted to be a journalist when she was a young child. “My parents said they knew I would be some type of journalist, because I always had a pen and was always writing things down.” Her family moved around a lot, but as Jennifer got older, it was her focus on her education and career that determined each step she would take toward her goal. Originally from Illinois, she graduated from high school in McKinney, Texas. She earned her Associates Degree from Collin County Community College, and when her father’s job moved her parents to Chicago, Jennifer decided to follow and worked her way through college at Northern Illinois University. “I majored in broadcast journalism. I was really involved in the student television center. Looking back, I was horrible! But it was so much fun, and I loved going to class every day. I just knew – this is what I was meant to do.”
She worked a full-time job, interned in television on the weekends, and took a full load of classes, eventually earning a degree in Broadcast Journalism and Communications. “I took my education very seriously, because I knew what I wanted to do, I wanted to fulfill my dream.”
“I got my first job in Wausau, Wisconsin. I moved to the tiny town, started out as a 6 o’clock producer, and I was the one-man-band 10 o’clock reporter. I was so excited to get started, so anxious to get a job! Within a year, I was the weekend anchor in Wausau, and I got the job here five years ago (weekend anchor). Within a few years, I moved up to the main anchor job.”
In the meantime, Jennifer’s parents moved back to Texas, and she began looking for jobs that were closer to her family. After interviewing with KETK, she made the move back to Texas. “I remember walking in my first day, and I was so excited.” Jennifer moved up the ranks quickly to her current postion co-anchoring the evening news with Neal. She had worked hard to get there, and the payoff was the joy of loving her job.
But the news of her diagnosis threatened all that she had worked so hard to achieve. “People expect you to look a certain way. Knowing that I was about to go through some huge physical changes, had me really worried if it would affect my job. Added to my fear of physical change, was a bunch of non-stop treatments and doctor’s appointments.” She wondered if she could physically continue working, and she feared telling her co-workers. In the first weeks of her battle with cancer, Jennifer told few friends and co-workers about her diagnosis. “I didn’t tell my coworkers, because I wasn’t ready. I was non-stop at doctor’s appointments when I wasn’t at work. I would go home, wash my face, put on eye cream for puffiness, take a deep breath and then go to work. I know some of them could sense something was wrong, because I was super quiet.”
Over the next few weeks and months, Jennifer would endure an agonizing schedule, waking up by 6 a.m. to make daily doctors’ appointments and heading straight into work. No matter the nausea, extreme fatigue, or laundry list of her treatment’s side effects, Jennifer never once called in sick.
“I didn’t want cancer to affect the one thing I had worked hard for,” said Jennifer. “I didn’t want the cancer to win. It [work] was one of the only things I could control. I had to continue to do what I loved, no matter how much my appearance changed. And, it changed a lot. I wore a wig once my hair fell out. I was on so many steroids, I gained 35 pounds. My body hurt. I was always nauseous. But, I was so busy worrying about my health outside of work and focused on getting better, that I put those feelings aside when I went to work and tried my best to not think about what happened that morning and how bad I felt.
“KETK was my getaway. I was a cancer survivor in the mornings and a news anchor at night. I had two full time jobs. At work, I never felt good, but I never said a word. I never complained. I just put a smile on my face and did the best that I could. Half the time, I couldn’t see the teleprompter, because my eye sight took a toll, but I still did it! I still anchored every show and did my absolute best.”
Eventually, Jennifer decided to go public with her story, and KETK produced and aired a three-part special feature on her journey. She said that the flood of support from viewers around the community was overwhelming. “Once the story aired, the outpouring of support from this community was amazing. Every day I got a card in the mail, prayer blankets, cookies. During chemo, I developed a taste for chocolate chip cookies! Chemo made me love cookies! They brought me books and checked on me. It blew me away. My way to give back now, is to help people go through it.”
“Breast cancer. Invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 1 grade 3.” This was the diagnosis that couldn’t beat Jennifer Kielman, and it is the diagnosis that has not changed but shaped the woman we see on the nightly news today. Throughout almost two full years of treatments, Jennifer never let cancer determine her path, and today she is moving forward as the same woman who always knew she’d be a journalist.
“The cancer tested that, but I won. My job doesn’t necessarily define who I am, but it’s a big part of who I am. Cancer is a horrible disease, it does not discriminate and it can happen to you. No one is invincible. I was fortunate enough to catch it early. I can’t stress enough the importance of self-breast exams and mammograms. I found the lump myself. I knew something wasn’t right and I acted on it. I saved my own life! If there’s anything to learn from my story, it’s to be proactive about your health. And you can live and work through cancer. Cancer doesn’t define who you are; but it does make you a better, much stronger person. I’m a fighter. It’s one of my biggest accomplishments.”
Today, Jennifer is focusing on fulfilling what she considers a call by God to help support and educate other people about cancer. Having endured all the physical rigors of cancer treatments, she is even finally beginning to recognize herself again. “I’m the same person, I’ve just been through a lot and have been ‘altered’ a little bit. But now, aside from being a brunette and loving it, I am confident with how I look. It took me a while to get to this point. But, I am proud and happy that cancer didn’t change the person I am. I am still me. I’m just a tad more patient and relaxed and definitely stronger. I’m also a cancer-free 34 year old with so much to look forward to in life.”