CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The University of Charleston's first lady holds three graduate degrees, including a doctorate. Her home -- vividly decorated in limes and yellows and other eye-popping hues -- looks like something from Southern Living magazine. Pictures and artifacts reflect a full life of travel and hobnobbing with VIPs.
Gracious, well-spoken and well-dressed, she exudes an air of vibrant elegance.
People can't believe it when Janet Welch tells them she grew up in a village called Sissonville. She's proud of those rural West Virginia roots. She wrote her dissertation on the Appalachian culture that shaped her.
Before arriving at UC 24 years ago, she taught at West Virginia Wesleyan, where she met her future husband. She engineered the appointment of Jay Rockefeller as Wesleyan president.
At UC, she transformed the dreary, rundown president's home into a showplace and, among other projects, established the Erma Byrd Gallery to salute the work of West Virginia women artists.
In 2005, she discovered she had cancer, a treatable lymphoma. Last year, it recurred more aggressively. In this extensive interview, she talks first about her experience with cancer and later about her journey to the UC campus.
"I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said, 'It teaches you, being ugly.' Well, it teaches you, having cancer. We were going along full speed ahead and in 2005, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I had a swollen place on my neck. When they did a biopsy it was lymphoma.
"The day they told me I had cancer was the only I ever cried. I had a type that could be treated with drugs. Until last year, most people didn't know I had a problem. It's an invisible disease. It doesn't incapacitate me in any way.
"I responded to the drugs right away and went straight into remission. I always thought, well, the drugs are there if it comes back. I didn't worry about it much during those years. If you do, you can't live your life.
"Last year, it turned into another kind of NHL, an aggressive form. This past year has been quite an ordeal. Only 3 percent of all lymphoma patients transform as I did. I had to have radiation. When they stick you in that machine and go out and close that door, it's the most lonely feeling in the world. I went through that for several weeks.
"That had to be followed with chemo, a whole new ballgame. I had two PICC [peripherally inserted central catheter] lines in my arm to receive the drugs. Every morning, Ed would flush them.
"I still suffer from closed throat syndrome. I have difficulty talking because my throat closes up. I was in the hospital for five days because I couldn't eat.
"You stand in the shower and look down at fistfuls of what once was your lush head of hair, and you feel true humility. You've been self-confident and self-assertive and suddenly you realize you are no longer in charge and you might as well learn to live with it.
"I'm still wearing my wig. My hair is slowly growing back. Right now, I am lymphoma-free. We don't know which one of my lymphomas might come back. Maybe neither one.
"If you let this rule your life, you will crawl up in a corner. I'm very extroverted, but I'm a very private person. It's very difficult for me to talk about my cancer. Someone said, 'Did it make you more aware of life?' I said, 'No, it annoyed me.' It takes the joy out of your life. It's always there lingering, like a shadow. All those people who say they are inspired by it, I never felt any inspiration.
"I talk about it very openly now. Charleston is the largest small town in the world. When you live on a small university campus and are married to the president, everybody knows everything anyway. You might as well let it all out there and hope somebody will learn from it.
"I feel lucky, even as a cancer victim. I'm surviving cancer. I have a lot of good people touching my life. There are drugs available for my lymphoma. I will probably die of old age maladies. My mother had half a lung removed when she had TB in midlife and lived to be 101, so she is my model.
"When people come through the reception line at UC, they usually know that Ed is from Maryland because it's in his bio. They ask me, 'Where were you born?' I say, 'A village right across the river.' And that always surprises them.
"I grew up in Sissonville. Sissonville is named after one of my great-grandfathers, John Sisson, who once owned all the land there. Across the river, the Gibsons bought land. My mother was a Gibson.
"One of my favorite stories that my great-grandmother told me is that her great-grandmother said, 'Daniel Boone, that dirty old frontiersman, keeps coming out here and he needs a bath!' I checked the dates and realized that yes, he was in the valley then.
"My maiden name was Boggess. My father worked at Libbey-Owens in Kanawha City as a foreman.
"Sissonville was a good little place to grow up, excellent for country kids. I had excellent teachers from Charleston. We had a lively little town, but my Sissonville is gone. High waters destroyed it.
"I was a straight-A student, the brain, a stigma. In my day, a girl got a certain amount of education then settled down and got married. I wanted to live in other places, travel, go on through school.
"Today, I have three higher education degrees, I've lived in eight states and have had some interesting jobs. Ed and I have difficulty finding a country we haven't visited. So those girlish dreams I had, I did them.
"I was editor of the high school newspaper and later the college newspaper at West Virginia Wesleyan. I was an English major.
"I thought I was going to major in journalism at Marshall, but I got a small scholarship to Wesleyan. I went to the University of Maryland for graduate school.
"I got my first job in Washington in public relations. My would-be employer was irritated that the college graduates he had interviewed didn't know how to size pictures. So I picked up a ruler from his desk and showed him how it was done. And he hired me on the spot.
"I had learned that sitting on the grimy floor in Howard Hiner's old photo shop in Buckhannon. He taught me about photography and the newspaper world.
"Next, I went to Tampa where I was public relations director for five hospitals. I wrote these dramatic stories, 'The Lights Never Go Out at Tampa General' and 'What Really Goes on in the Operating Room.'