Jennifer's Hope: One day there will be no more brain tumours

Jennifer's Hope: One day there will be no more brain tumours

The brain tumour journey is one an entire family makes when someone is diagnosed with the disease. For Vaughan, Ontario’s Capretta family, this meant watching their eldest daughter Jennifer change from the independent young woman they knew to someone completely different. The journey also united the family in a way they never expected.

The Caprettas’ journey began when Jennifer was 22. She was struggling with headaches but chalked them up to stress and the fact they were common in the family. In early 2002, Jennifer was visiting her boyfriend when a seizure struck. That late evening call is something Jennifer’s mom, Lucy, says she will never forget. “It was nine o’clock and our phone rang. Jennifer’s boyfriend said she was having seizures and was being rushed to the hospital. It was totally out of the blue.”

Lucy and her husband sped to the hospital to be by Jennifer’s side as she underwent tests. A CT scan that night showed no unusual results but the next morning’s MRI was different. That’s when something appeared in the imaging. “The doctors just described it as ‘cloudiness’… we were completely overwhelmed and didn’t know what to think,” Lucy recalls.

Taken by ambulance to another hospital so that a specialist could review the MRI results, that’s when the family was given a definitive diagnosis: Jennifer had a low-grade brain tumour. The doctor recommended the “wait and see” approach and Jennifer was put on medication to control her seizures.

Two years passed and the Capretta family kept on with life, connecting with Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada and the Brampton Spring Sprint (now Brain Tumour Walk) for support and to fundraise for the cause. Regular MRIs kept the tumour under observation and it was at one of those routine scans that Jennifer’s life would once again change – the brain tumour appeared to be growing. This time, doctors recommended surgery to remove the mass but due to its location and type, it couldn’t be completely resected. A biopsy confirmed the tumour was now a fibrillary astrocytoma.

Jennifer stayed positive throughout her recovery and was determined to go back to work, maintaining her day-to-day schedule and spending time with loved ones. She was soon engaged and began organizing her dream wedding for September 2007.

Then in 2006, deep into marriage plans, another routine MRI showed tumour regrowth. This time, chemotherapy was the course of treatment. Unfortunately, the mass didn’t respond to the drugs and there were no signs of it shrinking. Still, Jennifer insisted on living life to its fullest.

Almost a year passed and soon it was Labour Day 2007. Jennifer, with her sister and friends, visited a local amusement park, but feeling nauseated and battling a fierce headache, she had to return home. Jennifer was eventually admitted to the hospital for her symptoms and that’s when the Caprettas received heartbreaking news. The tumour had spread across Jennifer’s brain and was now a glioblastoma multiforme – the most aggressive form of brain cancer. Lucy remembers the shock that came with those words. A former medical secretary, she had heard the term GBM before and knew what it could mean. “We had to keep a glimmer of hope though, to wish for a miracle,” Lucy explains. “We didn’t want our fears to affect Jennifer.”

Then the toughest decision of all was made: Jennifer cancelled her wedding to focus on treatment.

It would be a difficult nine months to come as Jennifer faced the side effects of full-brain radiation. Hair loss, personality changes and constantly feeling ill had a profound impact. In Lucy’s words, Jennifer was “robbed of her life, of her youth – that’s what this disease does, it takes everything you know and are.”

Sadly, in June 2008, Jennifer passed away. In the six years after her initial diagnosis, she worked diligently to fundraise so that others won’t have to face the same journey she did. To this day, whether through the Spring Sprint, their own bowl-a-thon fundraisers or the first annual Jennifer’s Hope Gala, a fundraising event which took place November 15, 2013, the Capretta family upholds this legacy and work together to find a cure for the disease.

The volunteer committee who organized Jennifer's Hope galaFor Lucy, not only was this year’s gala event a way to honour her daughter’s hope for an end to brain tumours, but it was a way to cope with the deep loss felt now that Jennifer is no longer with them.

“This will never get better, it just gets different. You simply learn to carry it with you always. But I know Jennifer would be happy and proud of us for doing this gala. We want to keep her memory alive and make a difference in finding the cause of and cure for brain tumours.”

Pictured is Lucy Capretta, centre, the Capretta family and the volunteer committee who organized the first annual Jennifer's Hope Gala, held on November 15, 2013.

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Story posted: November 2013

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