EDITOR'S NOTE:This article appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Oct. 14, 2012, for the Texans' game against the Green Bay Packers at Reliant Stadium.
Jamie Gilmore wears many hats. Not to cover up her hairless head, which she shows off proudly at Texans games and all over Houston, but because the 30-year-old takes on so many roles.
She's a wife, a mother, an original Texans season-ticket holder, a three-time pediatric cancer survivor and the founder of Jamie's Hope, a non-profit organization aimed at accelerating cancer research in Targeted Therapy for every type of cancer.
Gilmore is currently battling Acinic cell carcinoma for the fourth time in her life, determined to overcome the disease while helping other patients receive the most innovative therapies today.
Gilmore was first diagnosed with the extremely rare form of cancer when she was just 14 years old. It originated in her saliva glands and formed a small nodule in front of her ear, which was removed at a local hospital in Houston.
"Because I was so young, the doctors didn't think I needed radiation or chemo at that time," Gilmore said. "They thought they got all of the disease to where it was OK."
But the doctors were wrong. Five years later, Gilmore discovered a knot in the same location, and after tests confirmed that the cancer had reoccurred, she scheduled her second operation to have the cells eradicated.
In an unexpected turn of events, on the morning of Gilmore's operation, the doctor informed her that she was three weeks pregnant. Gilmore had to postpone surgery and was closely monitored by high-risk OB/GYNs during pregnancy. That didn't stop her and her husband Garrick, two die-hard Texans fans, from missing any games during the Texans' inaugural season in 2002.
"Whenever it was announced that the Texans would be a team, Garrick was one of the first ones on the PSL list," Gilmore said, laughing. "I remember the first season of the Texans well because I was pregnant and miserable the whole time."
On Dec. 4, 2002, Gilmore's daughter, Mikala, was born a "perfectly healthy, miracle baby." Six weeks later, Gilmore headed to University of Texas MD Anderson to undergo the surgery she had scheduled 10 months and one baby earlier. By that time, the tumor had grown significantly and affected her everyday life and appearance.
"Basically, if I would have had a stroke, that's what it would look like," Gilmore said. "It was around my facial nerves. I had paralysis on the left side of my face. I couldn't close my eye and had to put a weight on it. I couldn't smile at all, and when I talked, my mouth turned down.
"I was in pain, but at that age, it was really more devastating because it was my face. It looked like someone had beaten me up."
The surgery took 12 hours; six to remove the cancerous nodule and six for reconstructive purposes. Surgeons at MD Anderson removed so much tissue on the left side of Gilmore's face that they had to use skin from her thigh to cover up the hole. Her vocal chords were temporarily damaged to where she could only whisper. She underwent eight weeks of radiation treatment that gave her blisters inside of her throat and lost 65 pounds in a matter of months. All of that on top of being a new mother, working at a law firm and being just 20 years old.
Despite all of the hardships Gilmore endured in 2003, she made a full recovery and returned to a state of perfect health for two years. But in 2005, she noticed a pain in her hip while taking an ice-skating class with her daughter. An orthopedic doctor ordered a CAT scan and found a tumor on the ischium bone in her hip, and a biopsy revealed that the same type of cancer had transferred to her pelvis.
Gilmore went under the surgical knife for a third time, having the bottom part of her pelvis sawed out. By 2008, all was well again. She went back to work at Adam & Reese LLP and began training for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, but she was never able to participate due to a broken hip.
After trying to have another baby for a few years and miscarrying twice, Gilmore visited the doctor for a check-up in April. The visit proved to be a solemn one, as Gilmore received news that her cancer had relapsed for a fourth time, cultivating in the exact same location in the opposite side of her pelvis and in her gluteal muscle.
"Because my cancer is so rare, they only estimate 130 people a year get it," Gilmore said. "There's no effective chemotherapy or treatment for whenever your cancer would capsize in so many locations like that."
Gilmore decided to try a new approach: The MD Anderson Targeted Therapy department, which specializes in personalized medicine and is what medical researchers believe to be the future of cancer treatment. Through this process, doctors look for genetic abnormalities in cancerous tissue in order to match a patient up with the most specific, personalized Targeted Therapy and chemotherapy possible.
"Medical researchers can pinpoint the genetic abnormalities and treat you with something that's more effective," Gilmore said. "That's why we started Jamie's Hope, to research into personalized medicine and Targeted Therapy."
Gilmore began her Targeted Therapy and chemotherapy in June, and will find out on Oct. 29 if the treatment combined with Targeted Therapy is working.
In the meantime, Gilmore had another obstacle to battle: Dealing with the loss of her hair.
"I didn't know I was going to lose my hair at first," she said. "I had really, really long hair, and I was one of the people that would cry when I got my hair trimmed and they cut off too much. But my dad, Earl, said, 'I'm going to do this with you. I'm going to shave my head, and I'm not going to have hair until you have hair.'"
The father and daughter hired a professional photographer to document the moment as they both shaved their heads, tears streaming down Gilmore's face as the last of her long, blonde tresses hit the floor.
"Losing your hair is something very challenging for a woman," she said. "Sharing that with my dad turned something so scary and negative into such a positive, loving, wonderful experience. It was just a wake up."
More recently, Gilmore had another exciting moment when she spotted Texans defensive end J.J. Watt on the sideline during the Texans vs. Titans game on Sept. 30 at Reliant Stadium.
"I noticed that he was looking our direction and he was mouthing, 'Do you want a football?'" she said. "I was looking around thinking, 'Is he talking to me or am I crazy?'"
When the game ended, Watt hand-delivered an autographed ball to Gilmore, and she gave him a Jamie's Hope bracelet.
"Now, he's got our bracelet on, but it looks like it's cutting off his circulation because he's a big guy," Gilmore said. "We need to get him a bigger size."
Gilmore's strength and dedication to finding a cure for future cancer patients is what pushes her forward. One day, she hopes to add "Cancer Eliminator" to her list of roles.
The Jamie's Hope Masquerade for a Cure gala benefiting The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is taking place at River Oaks Country Club on Saturday, October 20th from 7pm-11pm. For more information, click here.