In March 2001, Nanci Grayson Jenkins was bathing her then 4-year-old daughter, Jacey Lawson, when she noticed a small protrusion from her stomach.
“I thought it was odd, but I wasn’t really worried about it,” said Jenkins, who thought it could have been due to constipation or overeating. But after a couple of days Jenkins had her physician friend look at it. Thinking it could be an inflamed liver due to a cold or other infection, she too did not seem alarmed.
“Even the next day when I took Jacey and her sister, Calena, skiing she didn’t have any problems,” Jenkins said.
But after a long day of skiing, Jacey took off her sweater and what Nanci saw under Jacey’s tightly-fitting leotard, set her into a panic.
Jacey immediately saw a doctor and was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Her prognosis was good and the family was told that this specific cancer had about an 85 percent success rate. But more tests meant more grim news.
“Her cancer had metastasized,” Jenkins said. “She was stage four and all bets were off.”
The aggressive treatment began immediately.
“She had surgery that lasted more than six hours. They removed a grapefruit-size mass from her abdomen, two marble-size tumors from her tiny lungs and some bone marrow,” Jenkins said. “They started her on chemotherapy and two weeks later began full lung radiation.”
Initially Jacey was able to keep her spirits up, but as the months wore on her energy diminished.
“Jacey was just a full-of-life kid. She went to a preschool appropriately called “Make a Mess and Make Believe,” and that name says a lot about what she did. She loved to learn, play and fantasize and make a mess,” Jenkins said.
At the time of Jacey’s diagnosis, Jenkins and Jacey’s father, Steve, were struggling in their marriage. They divorced one year later. Jenkins had resigned from her job the day Jacey was diagnosed, so her income was limited.
“I knew I couldn’t possibly become an expert on cancer and adequately participate in Jacey’s health care, take care of her sister, and manage to work another job,” she said. “I was in shock and my knee-jerk response was to put all of my energy into saving my children. So that meant an immediate change in my financial situation.”
Jenkins’ friends Erin Moore and Ron Jenkins – now Nanci Grayson Jenkins’ husband – looked for a way to help with the mounting medical bills. They organized Jacey’s Race, a 5k and 1K run/walk to not only raise money, but to raise awareness of childhood cancer.
“They created the race to have people focus on their wonderfully healthy bodies and appreciate moving them while generating money to help pay medical bills,” Jenkins said.
When she and her family moved to Sandpoint in 2005 they wanted to continue the tradition they started in Colorado. Eager to help other young cancer patients, they held Jacey’s Race in Sandpoint in 2007. Each year the proceeds are donated to young cancer patients in the area as well as to organizations that help support cancer patients.
When she attended the very first Jacey’s race in Colorado, she did so with a very sick child. But the support she and her family received made all the difference in the world.
“We showed up that day and I was overwhelmed by the positive energy,” she said. “The hope and encouragement we received that day carried us through the rest of Jacey’s treatments. The money allowed us to pay some bills and took a little of the immediate financial stress off so we could focus on her health and emotional needs. We feel like every child deserves to have that.”
This year the beneficiaries of the July 12 event are Sagle resident Decker Weill, 7, and Sandpoint resident Nate Rench, 19. Weill has been in active treatment for over a year and travels to Spokane and Seattle for his treatments for neuroblastoma. Rench, a student at the University of Idaho, was diagnosed with testicular cancer and has been living with his family in Sandpoint while undergoing treatment at Kootenai Cancer Center.
At 12, Jacey is happy, healthy and cancer-free and is a ray of sunshine for others going through the battle against cancer. She serves as the ambassador for Jacey’s Race and interacts with the beneficiaries kids. Her job is to try to answer their questions and help them by the fact that she’s been through a similar journey.
Now, eight years after Jacey’s diagnosis, Jenkins encourages parents of children with a life-threatening illness to ask questions, seek out the best medical care and involve the whole family in the process.
“Siblings are scared and worried and need to be involved,” Jenkins said.
Sandpoint has embraced Jacey’s Race and Jenkins hopes the event will continue to grow with each year.
“If we can give even a little of what we received back and we can make a difference in another child’s life, then maybe we endured a childhood cancer diagnosis for an important reason,” she said.