Tuesday, March 18, 2014

My Name is Jen and I Have Brain Cancer

My name is  Jen  and I have brain cancer.  

It was a typical August in Arizona…sweltering and I had just finished at the gym and headed over to the grocery store to buy the food I needed to make dinner.  I grabbed my cart and pulled into the produce section with my list pinched between two fingers of my left hand, I pushed the cart with my right.  Without warning my hand dropped my list and I felt a little dizzy.  "That was really weird,"  I thought to myself.

I decided to sit down on the floor as a precaution.  I did not want to faint and had no clue what was happening.  I worried that I might be having a stroke because two days earlier I had had a simple outpatient varicose vein surgery. I called my husband, Matt, and told him what was happening.  

“We are going to the ER.  Do not move, I will come and get you," he said.  

“Are you kidding me?” I replied.  “I do not need to go the ER.”

Matt called my sister and asked her to come over, while in the meantime left my eight-year-old son in charge of his four younger siblings including his 4 month old brother, and picked me up in 5 minutes.  As we drove to the ER, I kept telling him I thought he was overreacting, but Matt would not budge on this decision.  We were going to the ER.

When we got to the ER they took me back for tests almost immediately, which should have been my first clue that I should be taking this seriously, but I was pretty focused on the “side effects from the varicose vein surgery.”  I had a CAT scan and an EKG and they decided to admit me based on a “mass they thought they saw in my brain, but were unsure,” I was still unphased.

The next morning I had an MRI and an EEG.  The neurologist on staff walked into my room.  You could tell he was about my age and a father.  He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said…

"You have a mass in your brain.  It is a tumor.  We believe it to be malignant."



“Do you mean cancer?” I asked him.


I screamed.  I cried.  I cried so hard.  I sobbed.  I called my sister and cried and she screamed and cried.  I called my dad and he cried.  This is not happening.  I have FIVE babies.  I have FIVE BABIES.  They are so little.  My newborn won’t even know me.  I cannot have cancer.  I cannot have brain cancer.  I cannot die.  I’m not ready to die.  I am 33 years old.

The neurosurgeon on staff offered to operate.  “I can operate tomorrow if you’d like me too, but I’m almost guaranteeing you’ll be paralyzed on the entire left side of your body when the tumor is removed.  It is on your right motor strip which controls all motor skills on the left side of your body.”

Ummm.  No thank you.  See you later, buddy.

The sweet neurologist on staff got me a “golden ticket” fast track appointment to see Dr. Nakaji who is one of the best neurosurgeons in the world.  It is a true miracle that we live 40 miles away from one of the top 5 neurological hospitals in the world.  I do not believe it was a coincidence that we chose to live in Phoenix when Matt was choosing dental schools all of those years ago.

Dr. Nakaji promised me the moon and the stars.  He removed about 90% of the pyramid shaped, golf ball sized tumor and I have very minimal “weakness” on my left side.  He saved my life.  Official diagnosis: Anaplastic Astrocytoma Grade 3.  Grade 3 is bad, but not the worst.  I had a seizure in the grocery store, not a stroke.  The seizure was caused by the tumor.

Radiation and Chemo followed brain surgery.  Brain surgery was a piece of cake or maybe it was the rockstar surgeon who performed it?  Whatever the case, I recovered in 2 days and didn’t take any pain meds.  Radiation and Chemo were another story.

Radiation started about a month after surgery and I went Monday thru Friday for my 15-minute sessions.  I was told radiation is easy.  It is easy to lie there and feel nothing, but radiation is the farthest thing from easy.  It took a couple of weeks to set in, but once it started getting tough, it got bad.  It kills the unhealthy and healthy cells wherever it is radiating (my brain.)

In the state of Arizona, you cannot drive if you have a seizure.  You have to be “seizure free” for 90 days so a friend or family member would take me to radiation everyday.  I was also on chemotherapy during radiation.  When you have brain cancer, chemo is in the form of a pill and is called “Temodar.”  I took it every night of my 6 weeks of radiation and one week per month for a year following.

By about week 4 of radiation, I couldn’t do much of anything anymore.  My days consisted of laying in my bed, getting up to go to radiation and straight back into bed.  I couldn’t walk down my hallways.  If someone came to the door and I actually made it, sweat would run down my back as I tried to look normal and carry on a conversation.  I used to run marathons and now my skin was gray, I dropped 20 pounds, my hair had fallen out, I couldn’t stand up straight, but worst of all, my babies were growing up without me.

They would run in my room and touch my face and say, “mommy is sick” and tell me they love me and run out.  I have countless pictures of my baby curled up next to me, resting his head on my chest.  I didn’t have the strength to hold or care for him, but somehow he still knew I was his mommy and wanted to be near me.

My biggest fear in life has always been to die young and leave my babies without a mother.  My mom passed away when I was 16 and it was so hard.  I could not believe I was facing the same situation with my own children.  I was beyond devastated and constantly crying.  I felt like this was the end of my life.  I was so weak physically and mentally.

I spent many hours on my knees begging and pleading with my Heavenly Father.  I begged Him to take away my cancer.  My prayers were long and tearful and it took many months until I realized that I have to let this go.  He has a plan for me.  When my mom suddenly died and left behind a husband and 3 little girls—it was horrific, but we are okay.  We were able to pick up the pieces of our lives and put them back together again and all turned out okay.  

As hard and as painful as it is to imagine my children on this Earth without me raising them, I know, I KNOW it is Heavenly Father’s plan for me AND for my children.

My name is Jen and I teach my children to have courage.  My kids know I have brain cancer.  They know there is a pretty good chance I am going to die young.  The doctors give me 3-5 years to live.  To be honest, I laugh at that statistic, but you never know.  No one ever knows.  I could die in a car accident tomorrow, which is why I live each day to the fullest.  Brain cancer has given me a second chance in life.  Not many people will ever have a top neurosurgeon look you in the face and tell you that you have 3-5 years to live and that is the best he can give you.  Whether I have 3 more years or 30 more years, I have to make them count.

This is my life.  No one else is going to live it but me.  These are my 5 kids and we only get one chance to do this.  It is important that I teach them the values, principles and strength I want them to have.  I believe that families are forever.  I am so thankful to know that even if I die soon, I can be with my family again someday.  The comfort and strength my Heavenly Father gave to me during this trial and each day cannot be measured.  I would have never made it, but I did and I am.

My name is Jen and I am conquering brain cancer.

**Remember the purpose of the "My Name is" Series is to open our hearts, to interact, to uplift, to support and to grow. Jen will reading the comments and I know that she welcomes your love, words of encouragement and support.  Jen also has an amazing BLOG where she documents her story of faith, bravery and her incredible fight for life. 

*Jen, the one word that floods my mind right now is... remarkable. You are REMARKABLE. In nearly every picture on your blog (before surgery, after surgery, and during treatment) and every time I have ever seen you in the last 16 months since living here, you are smiling. You are SMILING and you are happy and you are running marathons again and you are LIVING your life with such positivity and class. Thank you for inspiring me and for teaching me that I have to make my moments count. Every single moment counts

(Read more about the "My Name is" series and the stories of other inspiring women, HERE)

Jen's Photo Credits:
Nicole Hammontree Photography
Megan Papworth Photography 
Maggie Holmes Photography


  1. Thank for sharing Jen. You sound like a truly remarkable person - like Jacy said. Thank you for your testimony of eternal families. I believe that too and couldn't imagine facing trials without that knowledge. Much love and prayers to you from SLC!

  2. Hi Jen. thank you for sharing this story. I made the mistake of reading it in the library of my med school...and ended up crying in front of a lot of concerned people :) whoops!

    I just wanted to say that what really made me smile during this read was the final picture where you rocked your bald head. I LOVE THIS! I think so many of us look at that bald head and instantly feel sorry....i couldn't help but feel instant admiration. I hope to be that strong one day. I think it is a badge of courage, strength, and resilience- and it gives other cancer survivors role models to look toward. Your strength is so apparent in this short writing and in your pictures. thank you for sharing!

  3. This is my sister and she is amazing and her attitude and strength is beyond words!!! She also is such a talented writer, and I can hear her saying all of these words :) Love you Jen! And thank you Jacy for posting my sister's story!
    Julie Nygard

  4. Hi Jen! I found your blog a few months ago and your words have been an inspiration. You are so amazing. Thank you for sharing your story and for sharing your beliefs!! Hoping you completely recover soon :)

  5. Jen, you are BEAUTIFUL! You radiate joy and love in every single picture and it's absolutely inspiring. It breaks my heart that you and your sweet family are facing this challenge in your lives right now. But, if anyone is going to laugh in the face of cancer and show those doctors wrong in their predictions, it will be you. Praying for you and for your family! Hoping to hear updates on you 10, 15, 20 years down the road and longer!!!

  6. Wow! What a beautiful and courageous woman. Those babies are blessed to have a mother who knows how to face fear and move forward in life. You are amazing.

  7. Thanks for sharing. Bless u and your sweet family.

  8. Thanks for sharing. The moments do count. We all need to live each day doing what matters most. You lift me up! Many blessings and prayers to you and yours. God is good! <3

  9. What an incredible and inspiring story. You have changed my heart, and I vow to make more out of each moment. Praying for you and your sweet family.

  10. You'd need to be a dental staffing. professional for job security and income to buy the property in Tas, however if you transported that place from Berala down, it would fetch 120-130k. For someone who is reaching retirement without much more than an overpriced hovel in assets, it might be time to clear out.


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