Woman uses her fighting spirit to beat cancer
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"There are no pleasures in a fight, but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win."
- Muhammad Ali
Jaime Davila once thought a boxing ring would be the scene of her greatest battles, gloved and swinging against her opponents in the ring. Life had other plans.
Deep in her body, cancer cells were spreading and multiplying, and she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at age 27. Davila's most difficult battle would have nothing to do with being in the ring - it would be against herself.
Davila grew up on a ranch in Inez. She was a tough kid who spent her time climbing trees and scampering around her family's place. The tomboyish little girl became a rebellious teenager, responding to life with a fiery anger.
"I was always pushing back. Any kid that is acting out, there are reasons. I had my reasons," she said.
When she came to OutKast Boxing about seven years ago, coach Miguel Loya met a young woman with a mane of jet-black hair and wide coffee-colored eyes. She was working as a hairdresser, and she seemed like the last person in the world who would want to climb into the ring.
Her beauty made people underestimate her, Loya said. Her anger gave her promise.
She was always training. At 5 a.m., Loya would come into the gym to find her already there hard at work before joining the other boxers for more training sessions.
He watched as she transformed herself, harnessing her rebellious nature and turning that fire into what kept her going in the ring, long past the point where her legs went rubbery from exhaustion and every thump of her heart seemed like a protest.
In the ring, she could go longer than anyone else she came up against. She didn't seem to feel pain - that was what made her good.
"It takes a special breed of person to be good at this. Not everyone likes to get hit. You can teach someone to box, but you can't teach someone to get hit," Loya said.
Her dream was to go to the Olympics, but female boxing wasn't allowed, so she turned her sights on going pro.
As she worked up to getting her professional license, she fought nine fights, winning eight of them.
In the only fight she lost, she still came in second in the state.
"The woman she was fighting had more experience. That's the only reason she beat her," Loya said.
Boxing taught her how to use her anger to drive her.
"It's in the mind. If you're already beat in your head, you're beat in the ring. When you think you can't go anymore, that's when you got to push yourself. Your mind controls so much," she said.
She adopted a baby, naming the girl Jaala. She met her husband, Nick, at the gym. Loya watched as she became a strong, kind and confident woman outside the ring, and a ferocious fighter when she was in it.
Becoming a professional boxer was in her grasp when Loya noticed a change in his protege. Her boundless energy seemed to evaporate, and she started losing fights she should have won.
"All of a sudden she couldn't stand up to guys that were brand new that she would normally tear up in the ring," Loya said.
He urged her to go get checked out by a doctor. While she was being examined, Davila told the doctor that there was a pain in the small of her back. Davila figured it was just some pain from a concussion she received in the ring. When the doctor scheduled a biopsy, she started to get scared.
They found a tumor in one of her ovaries, and cut into her body to pull out the tumor and ovary.
"I knew. You know how you'll just have an intuition? I knew it was cancer," she said.
It was as if her legs had been knocked out from under her. One moment, she was a powerhouse of muscle and will, and the next she was a cancer patient.
"Going from being so athletic to sick - I'm a boxer, I know how to fight, but how do you fight something you can't see?"
The question rattled through her head.
On March 9, 2011, Davila opened her journal and started writing. Sitting beneath a canvas of stars on her family's ranch, she wrote about the phone call she had received from her doctor that afternoon telling her that the cancer had become worse, that it had spread.
"I just want to run. Run far and run fast. I wish I could go box again. I'd learn to beat it in the ring," she wrote.
But in the larger world, she wasn't sure this was a fight she could win.
She started chemotherapy that month. Sitting in M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, she watched as a black streak trailed up her arm, marking how the chemo intended to kill the cancer traveled through her veins.
The cascade of hair she took so much feminine pride in came out in clumps in her hands. Her skin burned as if a thousand needles were pricking her flesh. For the first time in her life, she was physically weak, so sick she couldn't get out of bed.
After another round of treatments in June, Davila laid on a hospital bed. Prostrate and weak, she commanded her body to get up. The thought shot through her mind over and over, but nothing happened. Despair settled on her, stronger than gravity. She couldn't do it anymore.
Davila called her husband, sobbing.
"I can't fight. I can't do this," she told him.
The cancer would win.
Her body was weak and the next month she found herself in the hospital, and she didn't know whether she would ever leave. Lying in yet another hospital bed, she slept and had a dream that she was chasing her daughter across a field, healthy again, whole. In her dream, she couldn't catch her daughter, Jaala, and when she woke up, she knew that she had to keep trying for her family.
"What kind of an example would I have been just to give up? I wanted to show them that I was stronger than that, that life is more than that, that you've got to push yourself out there and go forward, no matter what," she said.
It was like being back in the ring, except it wasn't her muscles or her anger that fueled her. This time she had to reach outside herself to find it. This time it came from the soul, she felt. She asked God to give her strength to fight.
Davila won. She got up from the bed and made it through her chemo and the cancer was sent into retreat.
As the days passed and it seemed more and more likely she was safe from her most vicious opponent, she made some decisions about her life, about her choices.
Most people don't get to see what kind of memory they'll leave behind when they die. Cancer showed Davila what she would be remembered for, and she realized it wasn't enough.
"If I'd gone pro, if this had never happened, I'd have been remembered as some girl who used to fight. I want more than that. I want to be remembered as a good mother, a good friend, a good person, not just a good boxer," she said.
Despite a scare earlier this year, her cancer is in remission. It may not stay that way. Davila knows that. She still carries inside her the thing that may kill her one day.
"I know it'll probably come back. It's just a question of when, but I'll be ready to fight it when it does," she said. "No matter what you go through, you put your head up and move forward."