A Sanctuary for the Soul: Honoring a Cancer Victim
Fighting to Live
In one of Bridget Lamont's favorite photos, her son Jeff -- sporting a crown that sits low over his ears and wearing a tuxedo that doesn't quite fit -- presides over the 2005 homecoming festivities at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, in Springfield, Illinois. The 19-year-old and his queen, radiant in white satin, look like the quintessential high school homecoming couple.
But maternal pride isn't the only reason Bridget cherishes this photo. For her it's an emblem of her son's courage and stoicism. Beneath the tuxedo Jeff weighs just 90 pounds, and under the crown all that's left is just a wisp or two of his flaming red hair. Three years earlier doctors had diagnosed alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that almost exclusively strikes children and adolescents. They gave Jeff only months to live. Yet after his initial treatment he was in remission for more than two years. Then in late 2004 the cancer came back. Still, Jeff is smiling.
"If I had to describe him in one word, it would be fearless," says Bridget. Wiry and athletic, Jeff loved the outdoors -- nowhere more than in the unspoiled wilderness of Christmas Cove, on the northern tip of Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula. From the time he was a child, Jeff's family -- which also includes his father, Tom, and his older brother Mike, now 28 -- vacationed there, often joined by Jeff's uncle, Jeff Later, who co-owned their beach cottage.
As Jeff's illness progressed, Christmas Cove provided a tranquil place to recuperate from the ravages of aggressive radiation and chemotherapy as well as a much-needed sanctuary from the constant focus on his illness. Here, where few people knew about his condition, Jeff was able to forget about doctors and needles and blood counts. Hiding his thin frame and hair loss with loose clothes and a hat, he could simply be himself.
By the summer of 2007 Jeff was down to 76 pounds. Between ever more frequent hospitalizations, he insisted on staying active, sometimes using a walker when he went out with friends. His doctors had exhausted their treatment options, and the family recognized that Jeff was dying. "It was always in the back of my mind that when the time came we needed to do something to remember him by," says Later.