Published: 22 December 2018
In late 2015, Jenna Bolerjack began a journey she called “the privilege of walking through a crisis.”
In December of that year, the Christian singer was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, as she was quickly ushered into treatment for this particularly aggressive cancer.
Bolerjack endured eight chemo treatments followed by major surgery in May 2016. She said this was a little out of order from traditional methods of treating cancer.
“They did chemo first because that way they can watch the medicine the doctors pick,” she said. “They can watch and make sure it is right combination for your cancer. Sometimes, the chemo doesn’t work on the cancer.”
Bolerjack said doctors were able to watch as the tumor shrunk in half after her first chemo treatment, which was followed by seven more treatments every two weeks.
Each of these treatments were five to six hours at Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City, and Bolerjack was well supported for her first treatment by her parents and her singing partner, husband Blake Bolerjack.
Jenna said that support was somewhat difficult, though, as the hospital would only allow one person in the room with her at a time.
“They would rotate,” she said. “The other ones would sit out in the waiting room waiting for me to be done.”
Jenna said Mercy Hospital is designed in such a way that chemo patients are placed in an open area where they can see one another.
“It’s just kind of a little different section in these big heated recliners that are really comfortable,” she said. “The chemo, they administer straight into your chest. There’s a little port that they put in there, and the chemo goes straight into your aortic valve in the heart, so the chemo goes directly in the heart. They administer it that way.”
Jenna, who, along with Blake, performed recently at Liberal’s New Beginnings Church, said she did not want to scare anyone who is getting ready for chemo, and she said treatments have come a long way in recent years.
“They now give steroids and anti-nausea meds, and those really help with the side effects from the chemo,” she said. “I had some nausea, but not like the movies where they can’t leave the bathrooms. There’s still a lot of things you have to deal with digestion and stuff for chemo, but I could eat whatever I wanted. I was thankful for that. I think the only thing that tasted weird to me was ice. To this day, I don’t really enjoy ice because it tasted pretty bad to me.”
Jenna said by the end of her last chemo treatment, doctors tried to measure her lump, but were unable to do so.
“They couldn’t find the lump anymore, and when I did the surgery, everything they took out and tested was there was no cancer,” she said. “It’s was just the original dead pre-cancer stuff. They told me I’m cancer free, and I just have to go in for checkups for five years. After that, they release me.”
Jenna said she was quite surprised by the chemo treatments she received.
“It doesn’t hurt, at least the kind I got,” she said. “It did make my hair fall out. It’s actually colored red. I had three different chemo drugs that they kind of switched up, but one of them was red colored. They nickname it the ‘Red Devil.’ They wear gloves to handle the syringe that the medicine is in, and they hand administer it because they have to make sure you don’t go into cardiac arrest as they’re given it to you. That one is the one that makes your hair fall out.”
As expected, Jenna did lose her hair, and she said she felt as those she were holding a stack of textbooks on her head.
“That feeling of all your muscles are just shaking and you don’t know if you can endure it any longer, that’s kind of how the chemo feels,” she said. “You’re so tired. I took naps every day, and that helped a lot, and a lot of baths because you get achy. The tiredness feels like someone has turned on a faucet of your energy, and they forgot to turn it off. You’re just completely drained.”
Jenna said even when she was simply walking across her living room, she became tired.
“I got out of breath just walking across my living room because it just wore me out,” she said.
As a Christian throughout her journey toward surviving cancer, Jenna said her faith was completely at the forefront of her mind.
“Every single thought for the whole duration of it was always about God,” she said. “In talking to other ladies who have been through the chemo and the cancer treatments who don’t know God, they’re tormented. They truly are, and they tell me, ‘I just don’t have any hope or peace.’”
Jenna said she has noticed people going through situations such as hers who know God have a peace that can only be found through Jesus.
“I know for me, the peace of God was very real, and it was immediate,” she said. “Not just the knowledge that God would take care of me, but I felt steady like I was standing on a rock. When I got the diagnosis, it didn’t floor me. It didn’t rock my faith, make me waver. I was scared to go through the process of it, but I wasn’t scared of the outcome.”
Jenna said this can only be said by a believer of Christ who knows Heaven waits for them.
“It doesn’t make it physically any easier, but the emotional grief and trauma is greatly more endurable because you’re not alone,” she said. “Jesus is walking with you, and that became really important to me knowing I wasn’t alone going through it.”
Jenna said having cancer naturally affected her singing, particularly in the area of breath capacity.
“Blake was a soloist,” she said. “When we were traveling at that point, he was a full-time soloist for 10 or 11 years. I would sing one or two duets with him during the program, but we were not a duet.”
The Bolerjacks, however, had already begun the process of talking about becoming a duet before Jenna’s diagnosis, and the couple made a decision to make that leap. Jenna said the diagnosis did not change her mind.
“We said, ‘You know what? We’ll just keep pursuing this,’” she said. “I would perform with Blake still one or two songs. I would sit on a stool because I couldn’t stand for very long. I didn’t want to risk. I’d sit on a stool, and we’d pick a couple of easy songs for me. We’d sing, ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee.’ We’d sing that song, and I would be on a stool.”
Blake and Jenna actually recorded their first CD as a duet between Jenna’s last chemo treatment and her surgery.
“There was a month in between there, and we went to record in West Virginia,” she said. “We put out a first CD together called, ‘He Knows He Cares.’ My voice was maintained, and I was able to sing it despite the chemo.”
Jenna said she has taken much away from her journey through cancer, but most of all, she credits the experience of having God take care of her through this difficult time.
“I can remember now an actual event in my life that was completely out of my own control saying, ‘God I can’t handle this. I’m just going to have to trust You, but this is going to turn out how You want or how You’ve chosen to handle it,’” she said. “I have to tell you the freedom of not being in control, knowing I didn’t have control of whether the medicine worked or anything like that, was so freeing, and I felt more free than I ever have in my whole life because I had to rely on Jesus. It’s a feeling I actually miss because once you kind of get your independence back of ‘Okay, this is normal life again,’ you miss that desperation that’s the truth of where we all are.”
Jenna said Christians desperately need Jesus, and spiritually speaking, she gained much more from the cancer experience than what the disease took from her.
“It took a lot of confidence,” she said. “I don’t know if the confidence in myself is anything I’ll ever get back. That’s fine. I don’t need to be confident in myself, but my confidence in Christ is completely unshakable. I would say that was why it was so worth it. I have an actual experience I can look back on and say, ‘God took care of me, and here’s how He did it. I didn’t know how He was going to do it, but I knew he would.’”
Jenna also hopes others will learn from her cancer journey, particularly not to wait to get to know God.
“A couple of years before my diagnosis, I got really interested in increasing my knowledge, my Bible knowledge about who God is and who He says He is,” she said. “I spent a lot of time in study and Bible studies finding out, ‘Okay, who does God says He is,’ because how can you trust someone you don’t know? So I wanted to know more who He said He is.”
Jenna said not waiting is also important because if a person gets to know Jesus and experience things they cannot handle, they already have a relationship with both Jesus and God and know they will be taken care of no matter what happens.
“I want to tell them that knowing God ahead of time takes all the fear out of what might happen to you,” she said.
Today is Christmas Day, and Jenna said she is thankful for more than a few things this holiday season.
“I’m most thankful for being reminded that Jesus’ name is Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us,’” she said. “For me, since He’s with me, I can look back and watch how He was with me when I got the phone call about cancer. He was with me during the scary chemo treatments, and He was with me during all of the depression and the grief that followed because of all the chemicals they put in you.”
Along with her body, Jenna said even her heart is not the same emotionally since her experience with cancer.
“The fact that He was with me through it, He’s now my friend,” she said. “I’m really thankful for the experience to walk through that with Jesus. I wouldn’t trade it.”
Jenna said those about to go through a cancer diagnosis and journey need to simply take one day at a time.
“It can be an experience of where they grow closer to God and their trust is built in Him,” she said. “It actually is an experience they can almost look forward to of ‘How is God going to show Himself to me during this?’ I just want to encourage them that there’s hope and it’s not all bad and that there own story can encourage someone else that’s coming behind them.”