Cancer survivor became a pilot while undergoing treatment
Jackie said flying has helped her feel liberated in spite of her cancer diagnosis.
By Flora Bowen via SWNS
A woman who battled mouth cancer and had to learn to eat and breathe again became a pilot while undergoing treatment and says she feels “totally liberated."
Jackie Burch, 30, noticed a "sore" on her tongue in December 2019 and went to the doctor concerned.
After pushing for a biopsy on the growth she was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma – a rare tongue cancer in April 2020.
Jackie, originally from Orange County, Calif., underwent surgery to remove the growth in November 2020 and spent a week with a tracheostomy - an opening in the neck with a tube inserted to help you breathe.
Two months later the growth returned, and Jackie pushed to have two further surgeries in January 2021 because she wanted "the best possible chance to live cancer free."
Despite her ordeal, Jackie decided to learn to fly and started her training whilst still undergoing treatment.
Now two years in remission, Jackie has obtained her pilot’s license and loves to fly a light aircraft, built by her husband, Tobias Stein, 31.
Jackie, a hotel host and former civil engineer based in Lucerne, Switzerland, said: "It was terrifying mentally and physically to go through it.
"When the growth started coming back on my tongue again, I got really scared.
"It was tough. More emotionally than anything else, because I came out of surgery with a tube in my nose, my arm in a bandage, and I'm breathing through a hole in my neck.
“My tongue is tethered. My voice is different. My speech is different."
However, Jackie said flying has helped her feel liberated in spite of her cancer experience.
She said: “Flying - it's absolutely the most ultimate freedom I've ever felt.
“My tongue or my smile is crooked. But the most important thing is that I’m doing exactly what I want to do in my life.”
Jackie met her husband, Tobias, a pilot, in December 2016 and discovered a passion for aviation after seeing he was building an aircraft in his house.
She said: “After I lost my job, he suggested paying for me to get flying lessons.
“I thought – ‘ how can a girl say no to that?’"
But Jackie's training was halted when she discovered a growth on her tongue in December 2019.
She went to her doctor in New Zealand, where she was living at the time, and had a biopsy which revealed she had precancerous cells on her tongue growth.
She was told her to monitor it and on her return to the United States, she started a course of steroid injections and pills to get rid of the lump.
Jackie said: "I was like, this really hurts now. I need to have this removed."
She had another biopsy in April 2020 which revealed she had squamous cell carcinoma.
Jackie said: "It was crazy. It was silent and something just like completely changed. The doctor said I was one of only two people who have ever had this."
Following her diagnosis and biopsy, she underwent further scans and tests but in July 2020 her cancer returned.
She had an hour-long operation to remove the growth in November 2020 - including a neck dissection to test the lymph nodes for cancer.
Jackie spent a week with a tracheostomy and had shoulder pain where her nerves were damaged.
She said: “Honestly, it was tough.
“I just thought – ‘What did I just do? Am I ever going to get better? Am I ever going eat that hamburger again?’
“It was really hitting me when I got out of the hospital.
“Seven days later, I was doing great. I started being able to close the hole in my neck.
“I was breathing out of my mouth and I was still eating out of the tube of my nose. Slowly I got the tube out of my nose and started eating some food - mainly blended food.”
The couple had bought a hangar home to house their new aircraft - a bush airplane named ‘Pocahontas’ and a Cessna 150 – when Jackie relapsed.
Jackie said: “I didn't really have any friends while I was recovering in our new home on the airstrip, so I was really excited to start the flying lessons again because I was bored and I wanted to get it done."
As soon as Jackie’s arm and shoulder had improved she started taking flying lessons again.
Within a year she gained her private pilot’s license on March 25, 2021 and began flying a small single-engine piston aircraft.
Jackie said: "My wounds were healing. My energy started coming up. I was a maniac. I wanted to get everything done.
“I was so stoked that I could talk on the radio, after the tracheostomy and learning to breathe again. I could be understood on the radio, which is absolutely incredible to me.
“The feeling of getting past that fear was amazing. It’s such a subconscious fear. I'm an engineer. I know the wing is really not going to fall off right?
“That has been such an incredible journey to continue to acknowledge that I have a fear but also find so much joy in getting to my destination.
“The super amazing thing about aviation is the community. It is such a tight community of people, there’s such openness, and camaraderie in the pilot community.
“It's absolutely 100% freedom. When I’m in America, say I wanted to go fly to Las Vegas, I could just set off from my house and in half an hour I'm at Las Vegas.”
Jackie is now in remission but has been told there is a chance her cancer could return.
She said: “On my last cancer check-up, I learned that in the first two years, there’s between a 20 and 30 percent chance the cancer comes back.
“There is this sense of pressure that you only live once. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Health is not a given and still to this day I have these conversations with myself – ‘Is this, in this moment really what I want to do?’
“I don't really think about it all the time. I mean, I always have to basically use a fork to move food in my mouth. But other than that it doesn't affect my life on a day-to-day anymore.”
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