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Teen loses cancer battle days after giving birth

jenni lake, cancer, teen mom
Jenni Lake's family, from left, father Mike Lake, sister Kaisee Lake, boyfriend Nathan Wittman, mother Diana Phillip with Jenni's newborn son Chad Michael Lake Wittman, and sister Ashley Lake pose for a portrait in Pocatello, Idaho on Dec. 6, 2011. AP

(CBS/AP) Just shy of her 18th birthday, Idaho teen Jenni Lake gave birth to a baby boy she named Chad Michael. But Jenni knew she was not destined to become another teen mom.

While being admitted to the hospital, she pulled her nurse close to her and whispered something into her ear. The nurse would later repeat the girl's words to comfort her family, when their worst fears were realized a day after Chad was born.

A day after the Nov. 9 birth, Jenni's family learned that her decision to forgo treatment for tumors on her brain and spine so she could carry the baby would have fatal repercussions. The cancer had spread too far and nothing could be done.

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"She told the nurse, 'I'm done, I did what I was supposed to,'" said Diana Phillips, Jenni's mother. "'My baby is going to get here safe.'"

In photographs of Jenni holding the newborn tightly, the baby's healthy weight offers a stark contrast to the frail girl who gave birth to him. Jenni, at 5 feet and 4 inches tall, weighed only 108 pounds at the full term of her pregnancy. Twelve days after giving birth, Jenni was gone.

Jenni's family and friends insist her legacy is not one centered in tragedy, but rather in sacrifice.

This month, her family gathered at their ranch style home in Pocatello, where a Christmas tree in the living room was adorned with ornaments picked out just for Jenni, including one in her favorite color, bright lime green. She had passed away in a bedroom down the hall.

Recalling Jenni's infectious laugh and a rebellious streak, her mother held the baby close, nuzzling his head, and said, "I want him to know everything about her, and what she did."

The migraines started last year, when Jenni was a 16-year-old sophomore at Pocatello High School. She was taken to the family doctor, and an MRI scan found a small mass measuring about two centimeters wide on the right side of her brain. She was sent to a hospital 150 miles south of Pocatello in Salt Lake City, where another scan showed the mass was bigger than previously thought.

Jenni had a biopsy Oct. 15, 2010, and days later she was diagnosed with stage three astrocytoma - a type of brain tumor. She had three tumors on her brain and three on her spine.

Her parents, who are divorced, remember they were brought into a room at the hospital to discuss her chances with doctors.

"Jenni just flat out asked them if she was going to die," said her father, Mike Lake, 43, a truck driver who lives in Rexburg, north of Pocatello.

The answer wasn't good. With treatment, she had a 30 percent chance to make it two years, Lake said. While he was heartbroken, Lake marveled at his daughter's strength. "She didn't break down and cry or anything," he said.

But her mom recalled Jenni had a weak moment that day.

"When they told her that she might not be able to have kids, she got upset," said Phillips, 39.

Jenni began aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments, while also posting videos on a YouTube site titled "Jenni's Journey," where she hoped to share her story with updates every other day. She managed to upload only three videos, though, as her treatments left her tired and weak.

On her second video, posted Nov. 20, 2010 (see below), Jenni appears distraught while a family friend records her having lunch with her mom.

"Last night, like, I was just lying in bed and I was thinking about everything that was going on and it just like, it just hit me, like everything, and I don't know, it made me cry," Jenni says on the video.

Her mom is shown burying her face in her hands. "Do you know how hard it is to be a mom and know that she's sick and there's nothing you can do," she says, before collapsing into tears.

Jenni persists: "It's hard. It's like, I don't know how long this is going to last and I just want it to go away ... I feel like this is holding me back from so much ..."

By March of this year, the tumors had started to shrink, the family said.

In a picture taken at her prom in early May, Jenni is wearing a dark blue strapless dress and smiles. There's a silver headband in her hair, which is less than an inch long, from the chemotherapy.

Her boyfriend, Nathan Wittman cradles her from behind, wearing a black dress shirt and pants.

Jenni and Nathan started dating a couple of weeks before she received her diagnosis. Their adolescent relationship withstood the test posed by cancer, the treatments that left her barely able to walk, and the gossip at school.

"The rumors started flying around, like Nathan was only with her because she had cancer," said Jenni's older sister, Ashlee Lake, 20. But Nathan and Jenni ignored the noise and dreamed of someday opening a restaurant or a gallery.

By May, Jenni was throwing up a lot and had sharp stomach pains. She went to the emergency room early one morning with her boyfriend and when she returned home, her family members woke up to the sound of crying. "We could hear Jenni just bawling in her room," said her sister, Kaisee, 19.

Jenni had found out she was pregnant, and an ultrasound showed the fetus was 10 weeks old. Jenni's journey was no longer her own.

When she began treatment, Jenni was told she may never have children because the radiation and chemo could essentially make her sterile.

"We were told that she couldn't get pregnant, so we didn't worry about it," said Nathan, 19.

Jenni, the third of her parents' eight children, had always wanted to be a mom. She had already determined to keep the baby when she went to see her oncologist, Dr. David Ririe, in Pocatello two days after she found out she was pregnant.

"He told us that if she's pregnant, she can't continue the treatments," Phillips said. "So she would either have to terminate the pregnancy and continue the treatments, or stop the treatments, knowing that it could continue to grow again."

Dr. Ririe would not discuss Jenni's care because of privacy laws but said, generally, in cases in which a cancer patient is pregnant, oncologists will consider both the risks and benefits of continuing with treatment, such as chemotherapy.

"There are times during pregnancy in some situations, breast cancer being the classic example, where the benefits of chemotherapy may outweigh the risk to mother and baby," Ririe said. "There are other times where the risk outweighs the benefits."

Jenni and her parents believed that since the tumors had already started to shrink, she had a strong chance of carrying the baby and then returning to treatment after he was born.

"I guess we were just hoping that after she had the baby, she could go back on the chemotherapy and get better," her mother said.

Jenni and Nathan named the baby Chad Michael, after their dads. Nathan has legal custody of the child, who is primarily cared for by Nathan's mother, Alexia Wittman, 51.

"Nathan will raise him," she said, adding they bring the baby to Jenni's house to visit her family whenever they ask.

Jenni didn't show regret for her decision, not in the final weeks of her pregnancy as she grew weaker, and not when she started to lose her vision as the cancer progressed, her family said.

Jenni's last words were about her son as he was placed beside her a final time, her father said. As she felt for the baby, she said: "I can kind of see him."

Jenni's Journey on Facebook.

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