Pearl River Community College’s baseball coach Michael Avalon has always preached to his players that baseball can often be like the game of life.
The famous American sportscaster Ernie Harwell once said, “Baseball is a lot like life. It’s a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.”
That saying is something Michael has not only lived by but experienced through the life of his mother, Janna Avalon.
Janna, who was the editor for 37 years of the Mississippi Catholic newspaper, then called Mississippi Today, is both a survivor of breast cancer and cancer in her sinus maxillary.
However, Janna’s story of perseverance through her cancer treatments begins with her two daughters, Keisha and Bridget.
“In my day-to-day life, I use (those experiences) with my family and as a baseball coach,” Michael said. “I use that as an example because in sports you talk about toughness. We compare the game of baseball to the game of life all the time. I think it’s great that I have those examples of toughness to think about daily, and it definitely keeps things in perspective for me.”
Keisha, who was Janna’s first-born child, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that covered about one-fourth of her brain at 2 years old.
Keisha was soon induced into a coma and was given just two years to live.
However, she awoke from her coma two weeks later but needed to have a tracheostomy, which is a medical procedure that requires a tube to be inserted in the neck to allow air to enter the lungs.
“I tell people now that (Keisha) was my life’s greatest teacher because she taught me what was important,” Janna said. “My faith is very important to me, but she taught me how to live my faith. She didn’t let things get her down. She always had a positive attitude. She wanted to live. She felt like she was normal. She had a big horseshoe scar on her … her hair didn’t grow because of the radiation treatment, so she had thin hair, but she never let any of that hold her back.”
Despite her medical issues, Keisha’s health gradually improved, but she regularly dealt with seizures and experienced different health problems in her life. However, she learned to talk after getting her trachea removed, and she was eventually able to attend school and live as close to a normal life as she could.
Almost 11 years later, Bridget was born, coincidentally on the same day as Keisha: April 10.
But tragedy struck the Avalon family as Bridget died six weeks later of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.
“Everything was fine then, six weeks after she was born, she went to bed and never woke again,” Janna said. “That put us into a real shock. You get to a point where you think, ‘How can God let this stuff happen,’ and we were saying, ‘Why us?’
“What I found was Bridget taught me how to grieve; until you face a tragedy of losing a child, you don’t really know what grief is. When my dad died, he had been so sick; I understood that it was his time. But when Bridget died, that’s the opposite of the whole spectrum with my baby girl. She started smiling at three weeks old, and life was good. Keisha started having more seizures around that time. I even had the thought at one point that God had given us this baby in case something happens to Keisha. What Bridget taught me is that we have to believe that there is a reason even though we might not understand why God allows things to happen.”
Even while facing the tragedy of the loss of her daughter and Keisha’s regular health problems, Janna continued to work.
While Keisha had positive moments, her life was fragile, and there was consistent fear of her not making it through the week.
For Michael, how his mother handled the situation through strength and grace had always stuck with him.
In one instance, when Michael was 13, he remembered his mom taking the time to hem his pants for a possible funeral for Keisha.
“I can remember standing on the dining room table when I was around 13,” Michael said. “She said she needed to measure my pants, and I really didn’t know why, and I asked, ‘why are we doing this?’ She said, ‘Your sister is probably not going to make it.’ I remember just my mom taking the time to make sure that my pants were hemmed and prepared for one of the toughest things in her life.
“She lived years after that even though she was touch and go that night. I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. The strength and the grace that (my mom) carried herself with and still taking care of my dad and two brothers is pretty special.”
Keisha’s life provided many valuable lessons and values that Janna carried during her cancer treatment and daily life. One of the values learned was how to provide support to others through their tragic times.
“One of the most important things in (Keisha’s) life was somebody holding her hand,” Janna said. “Sometimes, you don’t think about how powerful that can be. In the last 10 years of her life, she was in a bed, that was very important to her … that human touch.”
The values that Janna learned throughout her life helped in how she approached her first cancer diagnosis in 2003, which was the cancer in her sinus maxillary. Part of her treatment required a titanium plate to be placed under her cheek after having some bone removed and radiation treatment.
Despite the adversity, Janna never let herself become overwhelmed.
“That question that pops up into your mind is ‘Why me?’” Janna said. “I was still working, and I still had children that needed to be taken care of. For the most part, during my first cancer, I went to work a couple of weeks after surgery.
“If Keisha could make it and be a happy child and also be a happy adolescent and young adult even, then I could do it. She never got down. She had a healthy spirit. I always thought that the stuff I complained about was nothing compared to the stuff she could have complained about.”
Keisha lived until the age of 31. She died on Mother’s Day in 2008 and is buried next to Bridget.
According to Michael, part of the key in helping his mother battle her second stint of cancer was remembering Keisha.
“We use our sister Keisha as an example of strength and determination and an example of to not give in or quit,” Michael said. “I think (Keisha) set that example for (my mom). She sat by Keisha’s side the whole time and saw the struggle she had, so I think it ironically gave her the example she needed. That example of toughness helped my mom through her battles – no question.”
Michael also believes that Keisha’s life and his mother’s experience is an illustration of how to make the best of any circumstances.
“The thing that is so impressive is how they handled it with grace and never complained,” Michael said. “My sister was known for her smile, and my mom is known as a genuine great person. For them to have those tough times and be known in those ways, it just speaks to them as a person, their character, strength, toughness and love.”
Janna was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016, but through her positive attitude and remembering her daughter’s strength, she battled through that treatment as well.
While Janna not only became cancer free again, looking back on her life, she is grateful for the people that impacted her.
Her husband Billy, her sons, other family members and friends were important in not only helping defeat cancer but getting her through life’s trials.
“People talk about grief and how you cope,” Janna said. “Here, I had three kids in addition to Bridget, and while Keisha was having her issues, I think God gave us the strength through His grace.
“Keisha taught me how to deal with so much on so many different levels. Bridget, as a little baby, taught me so much. I tell friends now, God helped me find a reasonable way for me to understand what was happening. He showed that there are people in your life that inspire hope.”