BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – After losing her dad to a battle with lung cancer, and fighting off triple negative breast cancer, Jessica Kempker, is now staring the dreaded disease straight in the face again.
Kempker is the daughter of former Fort Madison Mayor Steve Ireland. Ireland married Kempker’s mother when Jessica was just a year old and she said he’s always been her dad.
Watching Steve try to knock back his battle with cancer in 2012 has her geared up for yet another fight. Steve succumbed to the disease that year, but Jessica was able to push her cancer into remission all the way up to just a month ago.
“I can’t believe how quickly it happened. I saw my oncologist on May 5 and all my labs were perfect,” she said Monday in an interview from her home in Dunkerton, Iowa, near Waterloo.
“My husband and I own a fishing resort in Canada, which we still can’t open because of COVID, but we were getting ready to head back up there. But I started having trouble breathing and went to the ER and it’s back.”
But this time the breast cancer cells have spread to her liver, spine, lungs, and brain. Kempker said her oncologist is keeping things very realistic and has her scheduled for 10 rounds of whole brain radiation and chemotherapy.
“My doctor is very realistic and said they were giving me months and hopefully years to live. I am obviously looking for more than that.”
With the cancer having spread throughout her body, Kempker said initially she wasn’t optimistic, but her husband Sean, who is typically the glass-half empty person, is optimistic about winning the fight.
“I’m usually the one who’s optimistic about things, but this has been tough. But now I’ve come back around to thinking I’m gonna win. I can’t imagine leaving my boys.”
Kempker and Sean have two children Hank, 5, and George, 3 months.
The triple negative breast cancer is the worst kind of breast cancer in terms of treatment options because it isn’t receptive to estrogen, progesterone or proteins. She went through eight rounds of chemotherapy three years ago and a bilateral mastectomy and finally found remission.
“Now it’s come back – and it’s kind of everywhere,” she said.
“I’ve always been a very happy and bubbly person. I constantly remind myself I don’t want to leave my boys. And then I think, dammit, why me. But at the same time, I have to beat this and that’s what drives me. I’m going to force myself to do the things I need to do, like eat when I’m not hungry.
“I always said if I got cancer I would let it take me because I saw what it did to my aunts, but once you have a child it changes you, and you do everything you can to be with your kids. That’s pushed me.”
She said the radiation will be a new treatment because it’s in her brain this time. Kempker watched Steve, who’s legally her stepdad, fight through radiation.
“I remember this mask he had to wear and when he died someone asked what we should do with the mask. I wanted to get rid of it because it reminded of his death. But I found out it’s still in the basement at the house and I said keep it and we’ll burn both of them together.”
The family has set up a GoFundMe page with a $50,000 goal to help with Kempker’s medical and other costs associated with the fight she’s up against. That link can be accessed by clicking here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/m9w6g-team-jessica?qid=a714a5f80047529e99ba9cc152152f7c
Kempker said cancer has taken a very heavy toll on her family. All four of her aunts were diagnosed with breast cancer on her biological father’s side of the family. She also had a grandmother with lymphoma and a grandfather who had mesothelioma.
Her doctors warned her that the cancer could come back.
“With triple negative if it comes back it’s usually within the first two years. They did give a warning of that, but they said it was safe to have another baby because the cancer isn’t hormone receptive and the baby would be fine.”
She offered up advice to those reading and hearing about her story.
“Don’t be afraid to get checked out. People are so scared to go the doctor and get checked or get a mammogram,” she said.
“Just do it. I want people to know it is scary, it’s always been scary for me. But you know your body. I’ve been getting mammograms since I was 29 and doing self checks. I found this cancer because I was doing the right things. Just don’t be afraid to get checked,” she said.