Jian Jiao

Jian Jiao, 39, from San Jose, California has traveled thousands of miles and faced death many times, but she’s always come back from the brink. Originally from Inner Mongolia China, her life has been an international journey and her optimism is what has always seen her through.

A former researcher with a pharmaceutical company, Jian has always been well-attuned to health. In June 2012, she went to the doctor with a persistent cough. Later, in August, at the 22nd week of her pregnancy, she felt contractions and immediately rushed to her obstetrician. The next day her heart rate rose to 110 beats per minute and doctors drew nearly a liter of life-threatening fluid from around her heart. In the fluid from her lungs, the doctors found cancer cells. At age 34, she was diagnosed with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer, which had already spread to her bones and lymph nodes. With this nightmare now a reality, she had to be strong for her unborn baby.

Ten days later, her baby girl was born prematurely, at just one pound two ounces.

“I saw her tiny red body and translucent skin, and then she started crying,” Jian said. “She cried for 10 minutes until they put her in the incubator and took her to intensive care. ‘Save my baby please’, I begged them.” The baby stayed in the hospital for five months, many times close to death, but every time she came back. Now her daughter is a very healthy and happy, sweet and smart five-year-old. “She is a fighter,” Jian says. “She is my angel.”

After Jian’s daughter’s delivery, she started a round of chemo to fight the cancer, but just four months later, the fluid around her heart came back. The doctors performed pericardial window surgery; however, that treatment led to a stroke, which paralyzed one side of Jian’s body and caused her to lose her ability to speak. Her husband, an engineer, shuttled from the hospital where she was recovering, to the hospital where their daughter was growing and getting stronger – and somehow he still managed to go to work. Turns out, he’s a fighter, too.

“My husband is the most optimistic person I know,” Jian said.

“He’s always able to find hope, even during the toughest times, when he thought he might lose both me and our daughter.”

Jian’s parents have also been integral to her return to health. They traveled to America from China after Cancer diagnosis. After Jian’s stroke, she couldn’t get up on her own, she couldn’t dress herself and she had to re-learn how to walk and talk. “Everybody in my life stepped in to help me – not only my husband and parents, but also my friends, my doctors, the nurses,” she said.

“Everybody has just been incredibly strong for me. I appreciate each one of them very much.”

Jian eventually recovered enough from her stroke to be more independent. Not only that, but her chemo and oral chemo did their job, shrinking her lung tumor until it was almost invisible in a PET scan. Then another shoe dropped: This past spring she learned she had a brain tumor. It turned out to be just another bump in the road for Jian, though, as radio “cyberknife” surgery, combined with medication, has worked to shrink that tumor and prevent a new tumor forming as well.

Jian still lives with two small tumors in her lungs, and she is undergoing more chemotherapy to make them smaller and hopefully eradicate them entirely. She’s got just two more rounds to go and then they’ll check again to see how it’s working.

At one point in her recovery, Jian decided to give back by volunteering at the El Camino Hospital Cancer Center.

She has gotten to know the staff and many people with cancer very well, even other young moms. “I’ve been going there for five years, so the cancer center is like a second family to me,” she said. “While it’s always hard when we lose somebody to this disease, everybody somehow manages to stay hopeful and encouraging.”

Of all the things that give her hope and keep her looking on the bright side of life, her daughter is first on the list. “I want to see her grow up and go to college,” she said, “and maybe start her own family one day, too. Yes, I want to be there for that.”

Jian’s optimism still shines through.