June 3, 2010 in Washington Voices

Despite cancer, Jennifer Becker kept grades up and plans to become a nurse

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

Lakeside High School senior Jennifer Becker is preparing to graduate, but her high school career was interrupted by cancer and she spent most of her junior year going through chemotherapy and wearing a wig. She still wears hair extensions.
(Full-size photo)

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Every year of high school has been a challenge for Jennifer Becker – especially the two years in which she fought and beat cancer.

Becker, 18, who plans to graduate from Lakeside High School, moved to Spokane with her parents, Christina and John Becker, and brother Caleb, now 9, in 2006, when her father retired from the Air Force – and just as she was about to enter her freshman year. Quiet and reserved, Becker found it hard that first year to find her place in the close-knit high school community, where many students had known each other since kindergarten.

But in time she made friends. Then in her sophomore year, a mass was found in her abdomen, and in the three weeks it took to figure out what was going on, it grew to the size of a basketball. When the teratoma tumor was removed from her left ovary, it weighed 15 pounds. Jennifer herself weighed just 100 pounds at the time.

“We didn’t learn until after the surgery that of the two kinds of cancers the surgeon was concerned about, one was fatal and one was very curable,” Christina Becker said. “Fortunately, Jennifer’s turned out to be the second kind.”

Becker underwent chemotherapy and the inevitable hair loss, which came during the summer between her sophomore and junior years. When it started coming out in clumps, “I got grandpa’s clippers and we went out into the garage and cut it off,” her mother said. “We cut it into a mullet, then into a Mohawk, and then off it all came. We laughed and we cried.”

Jennifer Becker said that beyond the cancer itself, the hair loss was the worst. Hoping some day to become a cosmetologist, she loved her long, dark hair. Wigs for Kids donated a wig to her, and even now her real hair isn’t that long, so she wears extensions.

Not able to begin her junior year on time, her family consumer science teacher Maureen Fanion brought work to the house for her. “With all of it, losing her hair, feeling so ill, she never used cancer as an excuse for not succeeding,” Fanion said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am to see how she chose to deal with this, to do what she had to do and move forward.”

Not that there weren’t tears and venting, but that was at home with mom. Becker got back to school and, even though she didn’t feel well and sometimes had difficulty standing, she kept her grades up and even served as manager of the school wrestling team her junior year. She’s graduating with a 3.3 grade-point average.

Becker hasn’t been very active with traditional high school activities but has had a number of community service involvements. Even before her own cancer diagnosis, she participated in Relay for Life, a walk to raise funds for cancer research, because of her grandmother, Diana Brink, of Spokane, a cancer survivor. And she and her mother have done volunteer work for the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.

Cancer also changed Becker’s career goals. While a patient at the Sacred Heart children’s oncology ward, she met and befriended a 4-year-old girl with leukemia. They made bead bracelets together. When the little girl died, Becker and her mother attended the funeral. There in the casket, the child was wearing all the bracelets Becker had made for her.

Becker will attend Eastern Washington University this fall. She hopes to earn a nursing degree and work in pediatric oncology.

“You have to appreciate everything every day,” she said. “Everything I went through, it was hard at the time. But I don’t think about it now. It’s behind me.”

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