POCATELLO, Idaho—Jenni Lake gave birth to a baby boy the month before her 18th birthday, though she was not destined to become just another teenage mother.
That much, she knew.
While being admitted to the hospital, she pulled her nurse down to her and whispered into her ear. The nurse would later repeat the girl’s words to comfort her family, as their worst fears were realized a day after Jenni’s baby was born.
“She told the nurse, ‘I’m done, I did what I was supposed to. My baby is going to get here safe,’” said Diana Phillips, Jenni’s mother.
In photographs, the baby’s ruddy cheeks and healthy weight offer a stark contrast to the frail girl who gave birth to him. She holds the newborn tightly, kissing the top of his head. Jenni, at 1.6 meters tall, weighed only 49 kilograms at the full term of her pregnancy.
A day after the November 9 birth, Phillips learned that her daughter’s decision to forgo treatment for tumors on her brain and spine so she could carry the baby would have fatal repercussions. The cancer had marked too much territory. Nothing could be done.
It was only 12 days past the birth—half spent in the hospital and the other half at home—before Jenni was gone.
Even so, her family and friends insist her legacy is not one centered in tragedy, but rather in sacrifice.
This month, her family gathered at their home in Pocatello, where a Christmas tree in the living room was adorned with ornaments picked out just for Jenni, including one in bright lime green, her favorite color. She had passed away in a bedroom down the hall.
Recalling Jenni’s infectious laugh and a rebellious streak, her mother held the baby close, nuzzling his head, and said, “I want him to know everything about her, and what she did.”
Migraines at 16
The migraines started last year, when Jenni was a 16-year-old high school sophomore. An MRI scan found a small mass measuring about two centimeters wide on the right side of her brain.
She was sent to a hospital in Salt Lake City, and another scan showed the mass was bigger than previously thought.
Jenni had a biopsy on Oct. 15, 2010, and was diagnosed with stage three astrocytoma, a type of brain tumor. With three tumors on her brain and three on her spine, Jenni was told her case was rare because the cancer had spread from her brain to another part of her body with no symptoms.
Her parents, who are divorced, were brought into a room at the hospital as doctors discussed her chances of survival.
“Jenni just flat out asked them if she was going to die,” said her father, Mike Lake, 43, a truck driver.
The answer wasn’t good. With treatment, the teen was told she had a 30-percent chance to make it two years. “She didn’t break down and cry or anything,” Lake said. But her mom recalled Jenni did have a weak moment.
“When they told her that she might not be able to have kids, she got upset,” said Phillips, 39.
Jenni started aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, while also posting videos on a YouTube site titled “Jenni’s Journey,” where she hoped to share her story. She managed to upload only three videos as her treatments left her tired and weak.
On her second video, Jenni appears distraught.
“Last night, like, I was just lying in bed and I was thinking about everything that was going on and it just like, it just hit me, like everything, and I don’t know, it made me cry,” Jenni says on the video.
Her mom is shown burying her face in her hands, then collapsing into tears.
Jenni persists: “I feel like this is holding me back from so much …”
By March of this year, the tumors had started to shrink, the family said.
In a picture taken at her prom in early May, Jenni is wearing a dark blue strapless dress. There’s a silver headband in her hair, which is less than an inch long. Chemotherapy took her shoulder-length blond tresses.
Her boyfriend, Nathan Wittman, is cradling her from behind.
Jenni started dating Nathan a couple of weeks before she received her diagnosis. Their adolescent relationship withstood the very adult test posed by cancer, the treatments that left her barely able to walk from her living room to her bedroom, and the gossip at school.
They were hopeful and dreamed of someday opening a restaurant or a gallery. Jenni had been working as an apprentice in a tattoo shop. But in May, her visits to the shop grew less frequent.
She had been throwing up a lot and had sharp stomach pains. She went to the emergency room early one morning with her boyfriend and when she returned home, her family members woke up to the sound of crying.
She had learned she was pregnant. An ultrasound would show the fetus was 10 weeks old.
Journey for 2
Jenni’s journey was no longer her own.
Jenni had always wanted to be a mom. She had already determined to keep the baby when she went to see her oncologist, Dr. David Ririe.
“He told us that if she’s pregnant, she can’t continue the treatments,” Phillips said. “So she would either have to terminate the pregnancy and continue the treatments, or stop the treatments, knowing that it could continue to grow again.”
Ririe said in cases in which a cancer patient is pregnant, oncologists will consider both the risks and benefits of continuing with treatment, such as chemotherapy.
“There are times during pregnancy in some situations, breast cancer being the classic example, where the benefits of chemotherapy may outweigh the risk to mother and baby,” Ririe said. “There are other times where the risk outweighs the benefits.”
There was no discussion about which path Jenni would choose. Her parents believed that since the tumors had already started to shrink earlier, she had a strong chance of carrying the baby and then returning to treatment after he was born.
Jenni and Nathan named the baby Chad Michael, after their dads.
Jenni didn’t show regret for her decision, not in the final weeks of her pregnancy as she grew weaker, and not when she started to lose her vision as the cancer took its course.
Jenni’s last words were about her son as he was placed beside her a final time, her father said. As she felt for the baby, she said: “I can kind of see him.”
Jenni’s Journey: www.facebook.com/jennis.journey
Jenni’s YouTube videos: http://www.youtube.com/jennisjourney