For Better or For Worse
Denise & Alan Jackson Open Up about Surviving Cancer as a Couple
by Jessica Webb Errickson
It all started in the small town of Newnan, GA – at the local Dairy Queen to be precise – long before country music veteran Alan Jackson would become the honky-tonk legend he is today. No, this wasn’t where the “Chattahoochee” singer got his big break. It was where, as a teenager, Alan met the love of his life, Denise. And today, after three and a half decades of marriage, three children, and a 25-year (and counting!) music career, the high-school sweethearts are more in love than ever.
That’s not to say that their relationship has been without struggle. Amid award-winning albums and chart-topping hits, Alan and Denise have survived some rough patches in their marriage, a topic Denise covers in her book It’s All About Him, but they’ve always managed to come out stronger on the other side. However, in 2010, when Denise was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, that strength was tested as they faced their biggest challenge yet.
“We were in Florida celebrating our anniversary when I got the call from my doctor,” Denise explains during an interview with Coping magazine.
Prior to the trip, she had met with her doctor to address some unusual bleeding. A colonoscopy revealed a small growth, but Denise and her doctor both believed it was nothing to worry about. Lab results proved otherwise.
“When I found out it was squamous cell carcinoma, to say that it was the shock of my life is an understatement,” Denise says with residual astonishment. “I eat a healthy diet. I exercise. I never dreamed that a doctor would tell me that I had cancer.”
Alan shared her sentiments. “I was just in disbelief. Denise had never even been sick in her life,” he says
Without hesitation, the couple cut their romantic getaway short and hopped on the next flight home to Nashville.
In Sickness and In Health
Upon arriving in Music City, Denise met with an oncologist to learn more about the cancer she was facing and to come up with a plan of action. “Going into the treatment facility was overwhelming,” Denise admits. “To even walk into the cancer wing of a hospital – nothing can prepare you for the anxiety and fear that can bring.” Fortunately, she had Alan by her side.
As her husband, I felt that my main responsibility, the thing I tried the most to do, was to just reassure and encourage her,” says Alan. “It made me realize how important it is to have someone there to walk with you through something like this.”
“When we would come home from doctor’s appointments and I was confused or worried,” Denise adds, “Alan was the one who would give me the clarity and encouragement I needed.”
“It was the first time I felt like I was living out the phrase in our wedding vows ‘for better or for worse,’” Alan says.
A Ray of Light
As frightened as she was to begin treatment, Denise had a good prognosis. She also had resolute faith that she would survive this challenge. “I’m a Christian, and I’m really strong in my faith. I cannot imagine going through this without that faith,” she says. “You think you’re so self-sufficient and you’re so in control of everything, but when cancer comes, you realize ‘this is way bigger than me.’”
Denise quietly underwent 30 days of radiation and two four-day rounds of chemotherapy. After two months of treatment, she was cancer-free.
“I never would have thought I would be calling myself a cancer survivor,” Denise says. “I do believe that I was allowed to go through this so that I could minister to others who are facing a similar situation and be there to encourage them. Sometimes the challenges we face lead us to discover what it is we’re commissioned to do in life. I feel like that’s the good that has come out of this experience.”
A Caregiver’s Ballad
Singer-songwriters seem to possess an innate ability to draw inspiration from the most unlikely sources, including personal experiences that may be difficult to revisit. Denise’s Grammy-winning husband is no exception. “A few weeks after Denise’s diagnosis, this song just sort of came to me,” Alan says. “The lyrics reflect the thoughts and feelings I had during that time.”
Baring his soul, Alan penned “When I Saw You Leaving,” a powerful ballad expressing the emotions he felt as a caregiver. The opening line perfectly captures the life-altering moment when a spouse is diagnosed with cancer: “Ain’t it funny how, one minute, your whole life’s looking fine, and a short few words later it all just comes untied?”
The song made its way onto Alan’s 2012 album, Thirty Miles West, which debuted in the #1 spot on Billboard’s country music chart. Fans had the chance to hear it performed live in March 2013 during Alan’s set at Stars Go Blue, a concert benefitting the Colon Cancer Alliance’s Blue Note Fund.
Having firsthand experience, Alan says his main piece of advice for people whose partners have been diagnosed with cancer is to just be there for them. “Be there to reassure them, encourage them, and support them,” he says. “You have to be strong for them.”
Thinking back to that day at the beach when a phone call changed her life forever, Denise says, “Cancer opens your eyes to how precious life is, how each day is a gift. It gives you a new clarity about things and reminds you of how precious your family and your loved ones are.”
Even after three years of clear scans, Denise admits that she still copes with fears of recurrence, but she doesn’t let them get the best of her. “This experience has made me more proactive about staying healthy for the rest of my life – with exercise, less stress, and a healthy diet,” she says. “Cancer has had a tremendous impact on me, but it’s not going to define me.”
In honor of a career spanning a quarter of a century, Alan has planned a year-long celebration, including a special Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit, which opened August 29, some new music, and an anniversary tour scheduled for 2015. Keep up with Alan, Denise, and the rest of the family at AlanJackson.com.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2014.