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Being an athlete helps Chameka Scott, Tiffany Jackson-Jones in their battles with cancer

Chameka Scott, left, helped Baylor win the 2005 NCAA title. Tiffany Jackson was an All-American at Texas and is an eight-year WNBA veteran. Icon SMI

A decade ago, on March 1, 2006, Baylor senior Chameka Scott and Texas junior Tiffany Jackson faced off for the last time collegiately. Baylor won; each player scored 10 points.

They were both native Texas kids: Scott from the greater Houston area, Jackson from Dallas. They were high achievers making the most of their talents, both examples of the best of NCAA sports.

What they didn't know then was that basketball was teaching them things they didn't recognize as potentially life-saving. Things that someday would be essential to their survival.

As women's college basketball teams across the country wear pink this month while they "Play 4Kay" to raise funds for cancer research and awareness, the players might think this is mostly about helping other people. But Scott and Jackson-Jones (Tiffany's married name) could tell them how unexpectedly that can change.

When each got a diagnosis of cancer last year, after the initial shock, fear and uncertainty, they reminded themselves of how they'd gotten through tough practices, rehabilitated injuries and dissected scouting reports.

"When you're at a loss for words, for thoughts, for meaning, you want to try to rely on something you've already been through," Scott said of her mindset after finding out in July that she had colon cancer. "For me, as an athlete, my body had been tested physically day in and day out.

"So the challenges I had to face with cancer -- the weight loss, the surgeries, the recovery -- no matter how bad it got, I knew there was a process. You push your body hard, then you build back up. And the discipline to do that is like playing, too. You have to take your medication, go to your follow-up visits, stick to your regimen, stay on top of your bills. It all translated to basketball even closer than you might think."

Scott and Jackson-Jones knew each other only as competitors when both were in the Big 12, and their paths haven't crossed much since then.

"But I heard about her situation and reached out," Scott said. "Her situation and mine may not compare completely, but seeing it happen to her, too, made me feel more like, 'This could happen to anyone.'"

Now both can speak to a similar challenge: being young, healthy, fit women who suddenly find out they have cancer.

"You hear 'breast cancer,' and you think you understand it," said Jackson-Jones, who was diagnosed with that disease in September. "But you don't really understand it until it hits closer to you. Or it hits home.

"It was something that wasn't even in my mind, really. So I feel like just knowing there is a possibility will help people. I wish I would have known more. I have been talking at schools and colleges about it. Especially with the African-American community. Because we aren't getting early checkups as much. So we're being diagnosed when it's stage 3 or stage 4, and we're dying at higher rates. So I've been preaching, preaching, preaching that."

Best not to wait

Jackson-Jones knows this from her experience. The 6-foot-3 forward was a star at Duncanville High, was an All-American at Texas and got picked fifth in the 2007 WNBA draft by New York. She played three years for the Liberty, then was traded during the 2010 season to Tulsa.

The 2011 season was her best thus far in the WNBA, as she averaged 12.4 points and 8.4 rebounds while starting for the Shock. She missed the 2012 season as she gave birth to her son, Marley, that year. The past three WNBA seasons, injuries have limited her to 40 games combined.

While she was playing overseas in Israel early in 2015, Jackson-Jones noticed a small lump in one of her breasts and decided to get it checked out when she got back to the United States.

She saw a doctor when she returned home to Dallas but had so little time before the start of the WNBA season that she didn't get a mammogram. It wasn't until the lump began to get bigger that she became concerned.

A trip to a breast specialist confirmed it was cancer. Jackson-Jones got the news from the biopsy while the Shock were on a road trip at the start of September.

"It was really, really difficult," Jackson-Jones said. "I didn't want to tell anyone on the team yet. It was really emotional.

"I didn't let my teammates know until the playoffs, because I knew I was going to have to go back to Dallas after Game 2, win or lose, to start treatment. I ended up telling everybody via mass text, because I was afraid if I did it in person, I would just break down."

Her teammates responded with cards, gifts, hugs and messages of encouragement. Jackson-Jones, her husband, Derrick Jones, and their son began the journey of a family battling cancer.

"My little boy is 3, and he doesn't really understand what's going on," Jackson-Jones said. "He just knows that on some days he stays with Granny, and then he'll ask about what kind of Band-Aid I got from the doctor. They give me different ones with Spider-Man or Scooby-Doo on them, and my son loves that. My husband works in East Texas, so he has a long commute. There is a lot to manage.

"My doctor kept telling me, 'I need you to keep working out.' And when I slacked off, she knew. I said, 'How can you tell?' and she said, 'Your pulse is too high.' So she has stayed on me the entire time."

This week, Jackson-Jones finished her last chemotherapy treatment, her 16th. The Shock's move to Dallas to become the Wings was good fortune for Jackson-Jones -- "Everybody dreams of playing for a team in their hometown" -- and she has every intention of being in action for the 2016 season. Jackson-Jones, an unrestricted free agent, hopes to be competing for the Wings this summer.

"I told my doctor, 'Training camp starts April 24. And I've gotta be ready,'" Jackson-Jones said. "She said, 'It's a deal. We'll have you ready by then.'"

Applying what you know

Baylor coach Kim Mulkey would like every incoming college freshman to hear the story of Chameka Scott.

"She did it the right way," Mulkey said. "She worked her rear end off. She didn't get off the bench much her freshman year, but she never stopped asking questions about how she could improve. She basically worked her way up the ladder into the starting lineup."

In 2004, Scott's sophomore season, Baylor fell to Tennessee in the Sweet 16 in a game that had a controversial ending, as the Lady Vols won on free throws with just two-tenths of second left.

The next year, though, Baylor more than made up for that disappointment by winning the national championship. Scott had seven points and four rebounds in the NCAA final victory against Michigan State as the Lady Bears lived a dream come true.

Scott was in the starting lineup all that season and as a senior, and she wrote an entertaining and insightful blog both years that ran on Baylor's website. Scott's hometown is Friendswood, Texas, and that seems appropriate. She's so gregarious and funny, you can easily see how she'd make friends quickly anywhere -- even several miles out in the ocean.

"As an athlete, my body had been tested physically day in and day out. So the challenges I had to face with cancer ... no matter how bad it got, I knew there was a process. You push your body hard, then you build back up. And the discipline to do that is like playing."

Chameka Scott on how her sports experience helped in her fight against cancer

For the past five years, Scott has worked as a performance coach for Chevron, a job that includes stays for two weeks at a time on an oil rig.

Her "teammates" now are the workers on the Pacific Santa Ana rig, whom she credits as being a strong support system and a motivation as she has battled cancer. She was eager to get back to them.

"I do a lot of leadership development and communication skills," she said. "It's very much like sports coaching. We try to find ways to improve performance, but I provide a perspective about people in an industry that otherwise is very process- and system-driven.

"And having played basketball is the basis for how I relate to these guys. Most of them played sports at some point, and we can all look back on our own careers and say that it's the team atmosphere that we're trying to thrive in now. It's 100 percent relying on the fact that I had that experience as an athlete that helps me do that."

Scott played basketball overseas for a couple of years after graduating from Baylor in 2006. But her professional career was cut short when she developed Crohn's disease, particularly because of the fatigue that comes with that illness. She was also advised to get a colonoscopy every three years as a precautionary measure.

What she thought would be a routine such procedure last summer turned out to be anything but. She had a blockage that was malignant, and she needed surgery right away.

"They thought it was a very aggressive cancer that was already in stage 3 by the time they found it," Scott said. "I had a few other complications after the initial surgery that prolonged my chemo treatment."

But after about six months, no more cancer was found. Scott was physically weakened and was relieved to stop chemotherapy.

"By that time, I had been doing a lot of research on the things I could do to make my body stronger," Scott said.

Find out all you can

Research became one of the most important things Scott did, and she recommends that anyone who's diagnosed with cancer do the same.

"My advice is to become educated," she said. "It's easy to get lost in the big words -- words that have a negative connotation and strike a lot of fear in you.

"Coach Mulkey always used to tell us, 'Act like you've been there before.' I never really understood what that meant then, because we were doing so many things for the first time at Baylor. How do you act like you've been there before when you really haven't?

"But when I took that approach to this experience, I found that it gave me a little more confidence. And if you act like it long enough, you actually do start to know what you're talking about. You realize there's probably an experience you've had before in your life that relates to what you're going through."

"I told my doctor, 'Training camp starts April 24. And I've gotta be ready.' She said, 'It's a deal. We'll have you ready by then.'"

Tiffany Jackson-Jones, who plans to be on court for the Wings this summer

What is particularly difficult to prepare for, though, is the financial strain a serious illness can cause, even if you have insurance, as Scott and Jackson-Jones did. Prescriptions, special dietary needs, medical equipment -- Scott at one point couldn't stand up in the shower and needed to buy a chair for that -- these things all add up quickly.

"My former teammate Chelsea Whitaker set up a GoFundMe account for me," Scott said. "She got that ball rolling before I even knew that I would need it. The costs can get away from you.

"And one thing I learned about the insurance company is that you've got to defend yourself. There were times with my medication where one shot would cost around $10,000, and I had to take it every two weeks. If they say, 'We're only going to cover half of it,' you can come back and say, 'Why?' You have to ask questions about everything and push back."

Scott said she was helped immensely by donations from family, friends and the Baylor community. She also found an assistance program that helped her negotiate expenses.

"I'm a pretty proud team player," Scott said. "I had an awesome team supporting me in the day-to-day at work. And also I had the same group of people from Baylor who'd supported me for four years playing basketball now supporting me in the game of life. That blew my mind, but it reminded me that it was bigger than just me."

The same has been true for Jackson-Jones, who also had a GoFundMe page up for a while and got support from fans of Texas, the Wings and the WNBA.

"There have been so many people who have reached out to me," Jackson-Jones said. "Some of them maybe I'd never even talked to before. It's been amazing. I'm really thankful for that."

A continuing story

Scott and Jackson-Jones still have upcoming surgeries. In Scott's case, she has to have her colon reconnected, then have her ostomy bag removed.

"I cannot wait for that day," Scott said, chuckling. "I still have a port in my chest, just in case. Hopefully nothing else will present itself. But if it does, I'm in better shape, and we'll be able to do whatever treatment is needed.

"I got back in the gym in November, and tried to ease myself into what was normal in terms of working out. That was part of the therapy, too. I was not as strong as I used to be, and I had to humble myself in the gym. But having some sense of control over it was very therapeutic for me."

Mulkey had Scott come in to talk to her current team. It was a chance for those players to see that someone not really much different from them was facing such a difficult illness with an upbeat mindset and gratitude for how sports had helped her do that.

"You always tell kids, 'When you play elite-level basketball, you're not just playing in the moment but preparing for later in life,'" said Mulkey, who added that her players also work with a student trainer at Baylor who has ovarian cancer. "With sports, you learn failure and success. You learn discipline. How to get along with your teammates. How to deal with a decision a coach makes that you don't like. You learn so much just about life by being part of a team.

"Chameka handled all the things that were thrown at her as a basketball player. She never asked for favors or felt sorry for herself. She just worked. And I knew that when she was diagnosed with this, it was a tough battle for her. But she has the proper attitude, and she's just a fighter."

Scott said an uncle of hers was diagnosed with colon cancer not long before she became sick, but even that combined with her Crohn's disease "didn't spark a fire" in her that she might be a high risk for cancer. And Jackson-Jones wonders now why she waited as long as she did to get her lump thoroughly examined. She says she should have done that while she was still overseas.

"I feel like, if I'd known more facts, I would have taken care of that," Jackson-Jones said. "But the idea of cancer was nothing that was in my mind then."