Breast cancer survivor Victoria Jackson uses SOS to offer support, provide ‘healing experience

Victoria Jackson was on a 500-mile trek across Spain when she faced a major decision.

After she took her backpack off one night on what she describes as a spiritual journey on the ancient pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago in 2003, and felt a lump on her breast, she had to choose whether to continue forward or to return home.

“I thought this may be my last journey,” she said. “I decided to walk with it, and it took 34 days. I decided that if it is cancer, that it wouldn’t make a difference at this point. I think that it was the best thing I could have done.”

Jackson, 54, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at 37 years old and following surgery, has been in remission for 17 years. It is a disease she said took her mother’s life in 1991 and her sister’s life in 1992. She also lost an aunt and an uncle to breast cancer.

“I was really watching myself,” she said of the years prior to her diagnosis. “I was checking all of the time. I knew I had a chance of getting it. It was being checked regularly.”

A Key Biscayne resident for 28 years, Jackson said when she returned from her 500-mile walk, “everything fell into order.

“Hearing those words, ‘You have cancer,’ you can’t hear anything anymore,” she said. Being in Spain, “it gave me a chance to really think about it. I was walking with a girlfriend, and we made a pack to remain quiet during the day.

“I told her that day, ‘Today, I may be crying and screaming,’ and that that night, I may tell her. She respected that.”

Upon returning home, Jackson learned valuable lessons in her care: get to know your doctor and your treatment.

“Really go with what you feel,” she said. “Really do your research. It’s all right to ask questions. I think all people do better with treatment when they know what’s going on. I really had excellent care.”

And now she’s giving it back.

Jackson is president of “Team Save Our Sisters,” a group of breast cancer survivors who formed a dragon boat racing team that trains in Miami and competes and travels worldwide against other breast cancer patients and survivors.

“This is the gift I was given for being a breast cancer survivor,” she said of SOS. “I got involved, got out there. After a woman or man undergoes surgery, everything closes emotionally, and you have to open everything to paddle, and it becomes such a healing experience.

“It’s a spiritual experience, psychological experience. And when someone says, ‘I know what you mean,’ they really do. They come to us on so many levels: beat up, scarred. They need to relearn how to use their bodies. It’s amazing what happens.”

What also happened during this time was Jackson met her husband, Ron Erbel. A retired firefighter, she said he became the team’s “husband” and chaplain.

“When we got married, we didn’t go on a honeymoon,” she said. “I left and went on a dragon boat race.”

Jackson stresses to survivors that there is life after breast cancer.

“Sometimes when we’re together, you almost wear our scars proudly,” she said. “We are not our breasts. We’re not our hair. Of course, we’re in South Florida, and it’s a body-conscious place, but the beauty is much more than that.”

From her experience, Jackson said it is important to touch your body every month.

“Get to know your lumps and bumps,” she said. “If there are changes, that’s when you need to really get things checked out. Early detection is so important. I don’t live in fear at all. It’s something I get checked, regularly.

“And if it comes up again, I’ll take care of it.”