Jackie Perkins was raised rural, but didn’t ranch until marrying. She and her then-husband built a successful ranching operation near Wann, Okla., and had two children, Paige, 20, and Heston, 17. She became involved as a producer for the Working Ranch Rodeo Association-sanctioned ranch rodeo at the Coffeyville (Kan.) Inter-State Fair and Rodeo.
Then, five years ago, she was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma. Uncomfortable with chemotherapy in her small town, she called Cancer Treatment Centers of America, thinking she could get better treatment at their Tulsa location. After finding out that the Tulsa facility would be out of her insurance network, she began treatment in Chicago.
“As I started treatment, things progressed,” she says. “It turned into inflammatory breast cancer. Then it exploded into stage 3 and escalated to stage 4. I spent the next five years going through 10 different kinds of chemos trying to find the right cocktail to get it stopped. Every time we’d think we had it stopped, it exploded and came back in another area. I had several reoccurrences. I’ve been on so many chemos I can’t even tell you all of their names.”
And prior to the diagnoses and treatments, she and her husband had divorced.
Where would you turn? What would you do?
“I thought, I have to fly to Chicago every three weeks, I have to do so many things, it would be hard for me to get a regular job and take off so much,” she says. “I started my own small cow-calf operation. I leased land and grew my little operation to take care of myself. I love being outside. It’s therapeutic for me to feed the cows—they’re like kids, they need me—and it gave me a reason to get up every day.”
Still, it wasn’t easy. She had the contacts and know-how to start ranching, but some treatments made her terribly sick, the travel costs for treatment were a burden, and the duties of a single mom didn’t stop.
“You don’t know what it feels like to not know what’s coming at you or what bills are coming in or what you’re going to do next,” she says.
But her relationship with the WRCA—part of which included donating some proceeds from the rodeo she helped produce to the Working Ranch Cowboys Foundation—came back to her aid.
“The WRCF has done so much to help me,” she says. “They helped when I was on chemo, before I got my herd up to where it is; they helped pay everyday bills. My insurance doesn’t cover a family member traveling with me and they made sure that money was there for someone to go with me. I’m getting ready to stay in Chicago for six or seven weeks and that’s money out of my pocket for accommodations. It’s something as simple as that, that can change someone’s whole outlook.”
Maybe it was the help of friends, neighbors, and organizations like the WRCF that changed her outlook, but maybe that help just allowed her to sharpen her focus on what mattered most.
“I had such faith that God was there for me and my time on Earth wasn’t up,” she says. “I had too much to do. I have kids to raise. When you have enough determination and faith in God, nothing can stop you. You get up everyday and put one foot in front of the other and do what you have to do. I’m a very driven and determined person when it comes to my kids—that was my driving force.”
It’s not over for Jackie, she’s still fighting different forms of cancer. But she’s not giving up. And even as her kids grow up and leave home, there are still the cows.
“With the land that I have and our lease, I run 90 cows,” she says. “I enjoy it. The cancer is bad, but through it, it makes you see things that you didn’t see before. It’s true that the grass is greener and the sky is bluer. It’s just where I want to be.”
Editor’s note: The WRCF seeks to help the ranching community in crisis and they rely heavily on donations to meet those needs. If you would like to help them support working cowboys in times of crisis, become a member today by visiting wrca.wildapricot.org.