Best friends usually have a lot in common, but Jane Hutchko and Jacqui Naville have more than most. They met when their kids were attending the same preschool more than a decade ago, forging a friendship over smiles, waves and brief chats in the hallways.
They've shared a workplace, a neighborhood and, ultimately, medical diagnoses that bonded them forever. At 42, both women are colon cancer survivors and grateful for the experience.
"I'm not bitter at all. The path that this has put me on, and the people it's put in my life, I wouldn't trade for anything," said Hutchko.
Naville agreed: "I got the blessing at 32 - the knowledge that this is it, this is all you get, make the most of it," she said.
Naville's diagnosis came at 32. She was healthy and had no symptoms when she was admitted to the hospital for abdominal pains and scheduled for an appendectomy.
Naville awoke from surgery confronted by a doctor, as well as an oncologist, who told her she had an aggressive colon cancer that had perforated the lining of the appendix. Two months later, she had a second operation to remove the right side of her colon.
In August, Naville celebrated her 10th year of being cancer-free with a survivor-themed party.
Hutchko had digestive issues and other symptoms for years that doctors had diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, hemorrhoids and even eating disorders. In 2005, after Hutchko spent a family vacation lying on a couch in pain, her husband, Marc, insisted she have a colonoscopy.
After a full year of chemo, radiation, surgery and more chemo, Hutchko was declared cancer-free.
Five years later, Naville and Hutchko worked together in the Dilworth Pediatrics office. They took long walks in their Bradfield Farms neighborhood in Mint Hill, talking about their families, sharing anxiety over upcoming check-ups and CT scans.
When the opportunity arose to help bring the Get Your Rear in Gear event to Charlotte to raise money and awareness for colorectal cancers, they agreed to be part of the planning board. In the midst of the process, however, Hutchko's cancer returned as a metastasized mass on her liver.
Hutchko participated in Charlotte's inaugural Get Your Rear in Gear despite her condition. She and Naville were inspired by the turnout: 1,100 registered runners.
In its second year, Hutchko was still in the throes of treatment, and 80 people signed up to do the GYRIG 5K as part of the Hutchko's Heroes team.
Hutchko fought through two full years of multiple surgeries and extensive chemotherapy, completing her last round in November 2011. She credits her husband of nearly 20 years, her sons, her doctors, the nurses at Oncology Specialists in Charlotte and her friendship with Naville for helping her through.
"Being friends with Jaq has helped me in so many ways. She is always there to give me hope, to offer support, to laugh with, cry with, complain to and lean on," said Hutchko.
Proceeds from the inaugural year are funding Charlotte's first-ever support group specifically for colorectal cancer patients through the Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center. The group meets monthly, and Naville and Hutchko are regulars.
The third annual Get Your Rear in Gear event takes place March 10, and as usual, Hutchko and Naville will do it together.