Mrs. Maryland Zereana Jess-Huff on surviving cancer, promoting women's health and striking a work-life balance
By By Teddi Nicolaus
Jan 13, 2014 | 3:17 PM
Columbia resident Zereana Jess-Huff was crowned Mrs. Maryland America 2014 in October. For the 34-year-old wife, mother, philanthropist and corporate executive, winning the crown provided a fitting ending to a frightening chapter in her life and an important new beginning to another.
During the pageant at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Timonium, Jess-Huff did not attempt to hide the "battle scars" she bears from her recent bout with ovarian cancer. Instead, she saw the pageant as an opportunity for her daughter and husband to fully comprehend that she had won her battle with the disease.
But Jess-Huff also intends to use her title as a platform for sharing an important message: the need to "think outside of the bra" when it comes to cancers that affect women. Just as breast cancer awareness continues to increase, so must awareness of gynecological cancers, she says, especially ovarian cancer. After developing stomach pain and digestive issues in January 2012, Jess-Huff received a trio of incorrect diagnoses, in part because she did not know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. In March 2012, she underwent extensive surgery and five months of chemotherapy before she was pronounced cancer-free in October 2012. As Mrs. Maryland America, Jess-Huff will partner with the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance and the Junior League of Baltimore to promote awareness of ovarian cancer and numerous other community initiatives involving women's health and family lifestyle issues.
Jess-Huff resides in Kings Contrivance with her husband, Michael, an engineer, their daughter, Hannah-Katharine, 11, and dog, Bentley. In addition to her family duties, she is the CEO of a behavioral health managed care organization in Maryland, and holds both graduate and doctoral degrees in counseling psychology. She is a national spokesperson for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition and the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.
Her family moved to Columbia from San Antonio in April 2013 and has fallen in love with what she calls the "small-town feel" of the community, as well as its many parks, friendly neighbors and recreational activities. Jess-Huff shared her thoughts on promoting women's health, striking a work-life balance, and life in Howard County with Howard magazine.
A: On March 6, 2012, but I had been experiencing stomach pain for a long time, and it really got acute in January 2012. So I did what most women (with ovarian cancer) do, and I first went to my primary care provider, but she didn't find anything through blood work or her exam. Then, on a Friday afternoon, I was in a staff meeting and I had to run out of there because the pain was so intense. So I went to an urgent care facility and they took an X-ray, and it showed there was some blockage. And so they said, "You need to go to the ER and get better imaging done because we can only do X-rays here." I had a flight to catch the next day, and I was incredibly busy. I basically ignored the advice and went on about my business and suffered through it. … This is something I have just berated myself over for so many months. If I had just known the signs and symptoms. … In March, the doctor said, "If you and I had had this conversation in January, we might not be looking at five months of chemo." I don't want anybody to ever have to hear that again because they didn't know what the signs and symptoms were.
Q: Do you feel that women who are in executive positions are more inclined to postpone seeing a health-care provider?
A: Oh yes, it's impossible to find the time, and often, for a follow-up appointment, you better forget it. I didn't even want to go and speak to anybody because if there were any follow-up appointments it was going to be a disaster for my schedule. Thinking back on a difficult, horrible story, I really think I am the cautionary tale for women all over the country who are invested in their careers but let their health sit on the back burner of life. I was the regional director of health-care services for a managed care organization in Texas, and I was basically managing three large departments and flying four or five times a week. I was all over the place because we were going through a massive expansion within the company and there were a lot of demands placed on us as workers. Being young and being female certainly affected the pressures that I felt. There is a glass ceiling for sure when you're young and when you're female, and I hit it pretty fast, being young and being ambitious. I have always held myself to a different standard, so while the average person probably would have slowed down, I felt an incredible amount of pressure to keep leaning in and pushing forward.
I think my story should be something a lot of people are aware of because it can happen to anybody, it truly can, the further you let things go. I'm incredibly busy, and this has been a life-changing event for us because we had to re-evaluate everything in our lives, specifically my priorities and where my values are. What I've learned is that there is really only one thing that matters in this world and that's the love of your family and the safety and the health of your family, and if you want that, what good are you going to be to them if you're six feet under? So you have to take care of yourself. As a woman and as a mother, you have to take care of yourself.
Q: As Mrs. Maryland America, you are focusing your efforts on encouraging women to "think outside of the bra." What exactly do you mean by that?
A: That's my platform statement. We have won the war on awareness for breast cancer. You say the color pink and everybody knows what you're talking about, so I think that awareness war has been won. But I know for a fact that it has not been won when it comes to gynecological cancers, particularly ovarian cancer. Of the gynecological cancers, ovarian cancer is the deadliest form because women often find it in the latest stage, and they do so because it mimics so many other diseases. For me, if I had read a bookmark or if I had read a webpage with the signs and symptoms, I would have run, I wouldn't have walked, I would have run back to the doctor and requested the appropriate tests, had I just known. This disease is all about a race against time, it truly is, where literally days can mean the difference between life or death. For me, having survived such a deadly disease, that is my mission, to talk about this to as many people as I can. Because if I just save one person by making her aware, then it would have been worth it.
Q: How did you become involved in pageant competitions?
A: When I was 14, I won Little Miss Mullet in Northwest Florida. It's a fish festival, not a hair festival. My mom loves pageants, and she placed me in it. I absolutely hated it and never did another one until 2008, when I did Mrs. Texas for a different system and won, and what I found over that year is that pageantry is an incredible vehicle to speak to people, particularly influential people who can help you get your message out. (For the Mrs. Maryland competition) I was contacted by the director for the pageant. I am pretty well-known in the "Mrs. Community," and she had found out that I had moved and asked if I might be interested. I was hesitant because I was just growing all my hair back. I've got scars obviously, and pigmentation lines on my back from the chemo that are never going to go away. So I was just very conscious of my body. I sat down with Mike and we talked about it, and he said, "You know, babe, those are battle scars. Wear them with pride." The pageant was also extremely meaningful for Hannah because she had watched me go through total hell. She had watched me essentially become a corpse through the chemo process. So it was so important to stand on that stage -- with hair, and with glowing skin, and just healthy -- and to look at her and be able to say, "Mom's OK. We made it. We're good." The look on her face, out in the audience, was worth a million bucks.
Q: Raising awareness of mental health is another cause that you have long championed. What sparked your interest in mental health?
A: Just having a long family history of mental health issues like depression. We've got a history of bipolar on the paternal side. Having family members who struggled with it created an intense fascination for me in the subject, so I elected to go on and get degrees in it. For the past 15 years I've been a mental health advocate. That was my life's work. When I volunteered in my free time prior to the cancer diagnosis, that's what I did. I was able to do a lot of great work for mental health. Between 2008 and 2009 I raised over $1.5 million toward children's mental health charities in partnership with other agencies, so I got a lot of good work done down in Texas. Now, of course, I've switched over to ovarian cancer awareness.
Q: Do you have any tips for balancing the time demands of work, family and everything in between?
A: Sit down and prioritize what's most meaningful to you, and really think about it hard, because why do we work? Typically we work to support our family. And why do we support our family? Because we want our family to be happy. Sometimes your family being happy can be done by simply spending time with them, giving them the attention they deserve — spending quality time together. I'm involved in a lot of awesome initiatives, but the best moments of my life are cuddling in bed with Mike and Hannah watching movies on iTunes. There's nothing better to me in this world than doing that. So prioritizing is important, and then the other thing is just having really good boundaries and understanding that in this day and age women wear so many hats. The important thing for women to understand is you don't have to be everything to everyone all the time. You're good enough just whatever you are. Being just a mom or being just a career woman, whatever it is you choose to be, that's enough. I've got friends who are stay-at-home moms and I've got friends who are corporate executives, and I celebrate all of them for whatever route they choose.
Q: Your job brought your family to Maryland last spring. Why did you decide to live in Columbia?
A: We did some searching of the communities and just fell in love with Columbia. We're in Kings Contrivance, and we love it. My husband was in the military, and we've bounced around to three or four places, but no place has felt like home so much as Columbia. It's a beautiful suburb next to big metro areas, but it gives our daughter that small-town feel. The neighbors are just incredibly welcoming. And I can't say enough about village centers -- it's the coolest concept in the world. You have your grocery store, your cleaners. Everything is right there, so we spend a lot of time at that village center.
Q: What are your favorite aspects of living in Howard County?
A: Easily hands down, the parks and the recreational activities. We love to visit Lake Elkhorn Park and love downtown Ellicott City. We are also members of the Columbia Association and love to go to their gyms or roller-skating. It's just such a well-programmed community, laid out very well, but the recreational activities, particularly the walking trails, I've never seen anything like it. It's phenomenal.
Q: What kind of fitness program do you follow?
A: I work out regularly. I've got a workout plan that I stick to. I don't follow a special diet, but it's balanced. That's another part of this: Women on the go need to understand the importance of a balanced diet, because that's what gives you energy to keep going.
Signs & symptoms of ovarian cancer
When cancer starts in the ovaries, it is called ovarian cancer. Each year, approximately 20,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer causes more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system. About 90 percent of women who get ovarian cancer are older than 40. Because the symptoms can be vague, women and health-care providers often mistake the signs for other, more common, conditions.
Ovarian cancer may cause one or more of these signs and symptoms: • Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge • Pain or pressure in the pelvic or abdominal area • Back pain • Bloating or swelling in the abdomen • Feeling full quickly while eating • Frequent urination • Constipation or diarrhea
Know what is normal for you, and pay attention to your body. Visit a health-care provider if any of these signs last for two weeks or longer and they are not normal for you. The earlier ovarian cancer is found and treated, the more likely treatment will be effective.