An Unplanned Event
After a stage III cancer diagnosis, event planner Kim Hall Jackson gave up the illusion of control and started using her talents to promote screening among African-Americans.
By Leigh Labrie
Kim Hall Jackson planned her first event—a surprise birthday party for her mother and stepfather—when she was about 10 years old. She saved her allowance of 50 cents a week, washed cars and braided hair for three months until she collected $25. Then she enlisted her Aunt Norma to fry chicken and buy a case of beer and invited family members to the celebration. Jackson, now a professional event planner, remembers the joy she felt when the party was a success.
“I was just thrilled that they were surprised,” she says. “It was my first opportunity to do something that I planned, controlled and executed.”
Jackson, now 52, came to event planning in a roundabout way. In the early 1990s, she worked in billing for a large chemical company, but she always volunteered to plan staff gatherings. She also was a part-time waitress at a Philadelphia restaurant and jazz club, where she eventually handled events, marketing and promotions full time. Later she worked for the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Convention Center, also in Philadelphia. Today, she runs her own event management, publicity and promotions business: KHJ Enterprise.
“It became really clear to me that I loved events way more than accounting,” she says.
Jackson’s personality—determined and driven with an acute eye for detail and a propensity for order—is a natural fit for event planning. Planners also need the flexibility to turn on a dime, she says, to be ready when it rains the morning of an outdoor wedding or when the guest speaker at a meeting gets stuck in traffic. Planners learn to improvise while remaining firmly in control in order to satisfy their clients, she adds.
Jackson, who is married and has six children, sought to exercise similar control in her own life. And the Philadelphia resident largely succeeded until a colorectal cancer diagnosis shattered the illusion.
Persistence Leads to a Diagnosis
In January 2008, Jackson, then 44, noticed a bloody discharge from her rectum. She called her gynecologist, a family friend who pointed out that African-Americans have a higher risk for developing colorectal cancer than whites and urged her to get a colonoscopy. Her primary care physician examined her for hemorrhoids and for a tear in the tissue of her lower rectum. Although she found nothing, she advised Jackson to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist, just to be sure.
Months passed between appointments. Because Jackson hadn’t seen the blood again since January, she wasn’t overly concerned, but she wanted to determine the cause. In November 2008, she underwent a colonoscopy and other testing. Her gastroenterologist found a stage I tumor in her rectum.
“It’s like an out-of-body experience,” she says of her cancer diagnosis. “You hear it, but you don’t. You’re present, but you’re not there. There’s a lot of fear. I really wanted to know everything. I had this overwhelming need to be informed.”
Changes in Plans
Jackson met with David Stein, a surgeon and chief of colorectal surgery at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, in December 2008. Stein explained that, in addition to having her tumor and rectum removed, she would need a
temporary ileostomy, an opening in the lower abdominal wall, so that waste could exit her body through the small intestine into an external bag to allow her bowel to heal. She and her husband, Jeffrey Jackson, a mental health professional who works in therapeutic staff support at an elementary school, held a family meeting to tell their children, who ranged in age from 13 to 27. Jackson says that telling them she had cancer was more painful than receiving the diagnosis.
“As a mother, it was the worst news I ever had to say to my kids,” she says.
Jackson sought a few more opinions and researched the disease. In February 2009, Stein removed Jackson’s rectum and surrounding tissue and attached the healthy part of her colon to her anal muscles in a minimally invasive robotic surgery. Then he performed the ileostomy. Until Jackson could resume normal bowel function in 12 weeks, she would have to use the external bag, but she believed cancer would soon be a part of her past. During her two-week checkup with Stein, everything changed.