Cancer no match for her smile

Any journalist worth his or her weight in ink will admit to capitalizing on the worst possible adversity to write an award-winning story. That was true in 2008 when a Fairfield teacher suffered two seizures in front of her students and was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer after she had adopted a 2-year-old girl from China.

My award came wrapped in mixed emotions. The teacher merited consideration for a story solely because of the cancer diagnosis and adoption. She was beloved by her students and co-workers. Most of all, she meant everything to a little girl who had no idea her new mommy would be going away and never coming back.

Jessie Lenox

This was not a sob story. It was an account of a woman staring her mortality in the face as she made arrangements for her daughter to have the life she envisioned for her in the United States. The teacher died two days after turning 46.

All those memories were rekindled upon being introduced to Jessie Lenox, a senior at Vacaville High School who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Feb. 14. The intention of the meeting was to find out whether Jessie would be willing to be interviewed for a story and promising her that the story would not cause a single tear to be shed.

Her radiant smile shed light on how she confronted cancer. Jessie researched what could have caused the lump on her neck, so the diagnosis did not come as a shock. She believed her doctors, who said “the treatment was really effective and the recovery was like 90 something percent. They thought I would be totally fine.”

Their assurances armed Jessie with the confidence that her cancer would not be a death sentence. “I knew it wasn’t a matter of if I could die,” she said. “I just wanted to go to school and run. Running is a big part of my life. It’s kind of like therapy for me. The girls I run with (on the track team) are some of my closest friends.”

Competing in track was out of question this spring, however. Her doctors allowed to run on her own as long as she listened to her body and took it easy as needed. She supported her teammates as best she could by lending a hand at meets. Her bald head made it easy to spot her as she hauled hurdles and starting blocks.

The loss of her long blond locks did not make her self-conscious even though she often wears a black cap. Jessie did have to consider what she would do for prom and graduation. Her head was adorned with a flower crown at the prom on May 25. A cap goes with her gown for graduation on Saturday, so she will be good to go.

Jessie looks forward to showing off her prom and graduation photos even though they will be slightly different than those of her classmates. Going to the prom and attending graduation means more to her now that it did a few months ago. Cancer interrupted her senior year, but it could not cancel all the pomp and circumstance.

“When I look back at those photos,” she said, “it won’t be as sad.”

Her multicolored tassel will be moved from right to left Saturday and her black cap tossed in the air at the appropriate moment. Jessie will have graduated from high school and from cancer. One achievement will mean as much as the other.