Real Life

Jaw cancer battler: Love is healing me

Devoted Jess and James are fighting her disease as one

Update: Woman’s Day is saddened to report that Jess Brown passed away in the early hours of July 4, surrounded by her loved ones. We were honoured to be able to share her courageous story and our hearts go out to her family, friends and husband James during this difficult time.

Our original story with Jess and James continues below.

Jess Watt had only known her boyfriend James Brown for three months when she phoned him to say she’d been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer.

Surgeons had told Jess that in order to save her life, they needed to remove half her jawbone and she might suffer facial paralysis because they needed to severe a nerve.

“I was totally freaked out. I was 20 years old – an age when I was trying to look nice,” recalls Jess, now 24. “I rang James in Australia, thinking it would be our last ever phone call. We hadn’t been together long and it was a long-distance relationship. I thought, ‘Why would you bother with this?’ But the first thing James said was, ‘When do you want me to come over?’

“I’m pretty lucky,” admits Jess, who was then working in Christchurch as a property manager. “I think someone has sent James to me for a reason.” Just days after that phone call in January 2012, James packed up his life in Australia and moved to New Zealand to support Jess.

“Basically, he never left,” she laughs. “I was in hospital for most of that year and he moved into my flat in Christchurch with five of my girlfriends. It was pretty brave of him!”

Back in 2011, Jess was 20 when she met James in a restaurant in Christchurch. He was working as an insurance assessor for the EQC Earthquake Commission. “I thought, ‘Wow, he’s so big!’” recalls Jess. “We laughed all night, then he walked me to the car and gave me a hug. I just had this feeling.”

Then a month after they met, Jess began experiencing pain in her jaw. “It felt like it had been dislocated,” she says. “I’d had my braces taken off a year earlier, so I went back to the orthodontist thinking something must be out of line.”

Meanwhile, James’ contract ran out at the end of 2011, so he returned to Australia, but the couple stayed in touch. By then, the pain in Jess’ jaw was severe. She was at first treated for an infection in her saliva glands, but when things worsened, she underwent further tests and was eventually diagnosed with osteosarcoma.

“My mother was with me when I was told,” Jess tells. “I am an only child and she just broke down. I had to be the strong one.”

Osteosarcoma is a cancer of the bone that mostly affects children and young people, often growing in long bones found in the legs or arms. Tumours that appear in the jawbone are one of the rarest forms of the disease. “The lump in my jaw was the size of a golf ball and rock hard,” Jess explains. “I was so self-conscious that by then, I was pulling my hair to one side to cover it up.”

With James’ support, Jess endured a gruelling year of chemotherapy at Christchurch Hospital. At the end of the treatment, the couple moved to James’ hometown of Buderim on the Sunshine Coast, where James, now 29, retrained as a police officer.

Having first met in Christchurch in 2011, Jess and James were married on the Queensland coast last April.

For the next two years, Jess enjoyed good health. “I’d always looked after myself anyway, but I totally overhauled my life and my diet – I felt healthier than

I had before having cancer.”

The loved-up couple wed on the Sunshine Coast in April 2015. “It was incredible and we both deserved it after what we’d been through,” says Jess. Her highlight of the day was having family and friends from NZ witness her marrying the love of her life in her new home of Buderim. “I just felt so grateful for James and my health, and everything I had.”

But on the day the couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary, everything changed. A routine check-up showed that Jess’ cancer was back with a vengeance. Two tumours were discovered in her lungs. “It was such unwelcome news,” says Jess, her voice breaking as she recalls the diagnosis. “We were happy and I was so angry that cancer was ruining all our plans for the future.”

Jess’ battle with cancer first began in 2011, when a tumour was discovered in her jaw.

Jess had surgery last year to remove the tumours, but three months later, the cancer was back again. The doctors told Jess it had become resistant to treatment and

was inoperable due to where it was sitting in her chest.

“A doctor sat me down and said, ‘I hope you know you need to start ticking off your bucket list,’” tells Jess quietly. “I said, ‘I don’t accept that and I’m not listening to you.’ I felt fine – I wasn’t even tired.”

As usual, James was her rock. He told her, “You’ve beaten this once and you’ll do it again. I’m with you every step of the way.”

James, a police officer, continues to support Jess through each of her treatments.

Jess has since changed specialists and researched alternative treatments. She’s having hyperthermia therapy and hyperbaric oxygen treatments on the Gold Coast – exposing her body to high temperatures and increased levels of oxygen – and is taking high-dose vitamin C infusions.Her friends from Burnside High School in Christchurch are also trying to raise $40,000 so that Jess can attend a cancer clinic in Mexico.

Jess refuses to give up and she wants to empower other people with cancer to make their own decisions about any treatments. “I am determined to be positive and find a way. I look at James and think, ‘I have so much to live for.’”

Related stories