Article by Jan-Marie Merrill
Over the last decade, Hooters has proudly raised nearly $2 million for The V Foundation for Cancer Research. Much of it was raised in honor of the late Kelly Jo Dowd, one of the original Hooters Girls, who valiantly battled breast cancer for five years before she succumbed in 2007. Funds help to further important scientific cancer research and Kelly Jo’s mission to educate all women about the importance of early breast cancer detection and treatment.
It’s quite easy for some people to dismiss Hooters as ‘that’ restaurant. You know … the restaurant where scantily clad girls serve beer and chicken wings. The concept – still the original, still the standard – unfortunately has received more than its share of vulgarized misconceptions and perverse misinterpretations. I am, however, always happy and filled with pride to dispel such misgivings.
Since its inception in 1983, and despite the qualms of naysayers and cynics alike, Hooters remains one of the most popular, recognizable, successful restaurant chains still standing today.
I began my new wing-slinging career with the freshness and timidity expected from a neophyte. But, at 29 years old, I had one little life-changing secret: nine years prior, I had been diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer.
When I had my initial diagnosis at the age of 20, I was told that my cancer was unusual but not impossible. An enlarged breast and subsequent lumpectomy revealed five malignant lumps, infected surrounding cells and something my oncologists referred to as Stage 1. Naturally, at 20, I felt I had been issued a death sentence. I even prepared a will.
In the year following my diagnosis, I begrudgingly agreed to undergo radiation therapy. Due to my young age, I was deemed an unsuitable candidate for surgery, so a mastectomy wasn’t even an option to consider. When radiation produced little to no change, I then agreed to undergo the more effective solution of chemotherapy.
For several months thereafter, I went without a single health concern – not even a runny nose. No cancer, no chemo and no worries – that is, until 2001, when a routine check-up exposed that my cancer had not only returned more aggressively, but it was mutative and metastatic. I underwent treatment for more than a year.
In 2005, I had an emergency hysterectomy due to complications caused by the estrogen that was inexplicably produced by receptive cancer cells in my body. Approximately one year later, I suffered another recurrence. Once again, I grew painfully aware that my life would most likely revolve around this dreadful curse of a disease forever. My life would revolve around my imminent fight for survival … forever. At Stage 3, with the presence of cancer cells in my lymphatic system, I vigorously attended my treatments, not out of logic or choice but out of necessity. Without seeming trite, I experienced the entire array of predictable side effects: the moodiness, the nausea, the mouth sores, the lack of appetite, the indescribable aches and pains, and my least favorite: the chronic insomnia.
A lot of time passed between my initial diagnosis and starting at Hooters. I had dealt with several transitions in my life – from purchasing a home, earning my master’s degree and acquiring my pilot’s license to getting divorced and basically starting over on my own.
I slowly began to open up to my superiors and coworkers about my illness and treatments, and my Hooters family embraced me. Although Hooters may be one of the unlikeliest places to find such an unshakable support system, I have learned more from them than they can ever learn from me. From my management team to every one of my fellow orange-shorted sisters, there is no gratitude sufficient or worthy enough to describe what I received from them: acceptance through understanding.
By the time 2009 rolled around, I was in Hooters Heaven. Freshly promoted to Regional Training Coordinator, I was surrounded by the same managers and mentors that I had respected and admired for so long, and I was loving every second of it! Nearly six weeks after I completed my training, I was involved in an unfortunate car accident that resulted in ruptured discs in my spine and some seizure-related head trauma. Much to my dismay, I had to take a mandatory medical leave of absence from Hooters. After my initial breast cancer diagnosis, this was the most devastating news I had ever received.
A routine MRI and evaluation a month later revealed that my cancer cell count was ‘off.’ The results were inconclusive, but my doctors were certain of one thing: if I suffered another recurrence, my survival rate would undoubtedly diminish. Dismay turned into defeat. Sadness turned into depression, and hopefulness turned into helplessness. I felt like nothing mattered. I even considered not returning to therapy. After all, I felt my best when I didn’t go to therapy. When I was at Hooters working with my peers and socializing with my guests, I was inarguably at my best. So I’ve been told. So I believe.
After much deliberation, I reluctantly decided to heed the advice of my cancer care team and begin another round of chemotherapy, though primarily on a preventative basis. My cancer cell count eventually became manageable, and I was able to downgrade to oral treatments along with supplemental injections. My management team at Hooters agreed to rehire me after a year-long hiatus, with suitable doctor’s orders and shorter shifts.
To acknowledge that my colleagues at Hooters have been supportive and accommodating would be a gross understatement, and I am forever indebted. I’ve had the esteemed privilege to work among the best and brightest in the business, and I have experienced countless opportunities to cultivate relationships which, I feel, have been paramount to my recovery.
Today, I am still undergoing preventative chemotherapy and mandatory evaluations to maintain my physical, mental and psychological health. Most recently, it was discovered that I have a lobular tumor on my brain, so I am taking precautions to manage that as well. I have lost both my parents to cancer in the past three years, and because I carry the same mutative genes that they had, I’ll never fully be in remission or completely cancer-free.
My history with this awful disease has been painfully unpleasant and, at times, seemingly unbearable. I may never be rid of it, but I intend to never lose sight of my goal: to endure. For as long as there are researchers and clinical trials, foundations and fundraisers, there will always be hope. And, as long as I have Hooters, I will never lose that hope.
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