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Adriana Jenkins, who poignantly rendered cancer's lessons, dies at 41

Posted by Roy Greene  February 14, 2011 03:52 PM

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(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/2002)

Adriana Jenkins: "I should not be thinking, 'I'll do that one day,' or 'I've always wanted to do that,' but to do things now and not wait."

After diagnosis and despair, experimental treatment and hope, Adriana Jenkins opened her journal to record the lessons cancer taught.

"This situation, as bad as it is, has had the benefit of making me view life in a different way," she wrote in 2002. "That work is work and not life. That I should not be thinking 'I'll do that one day,' or 'I've always wanted to do that,' but to do things now and not wait. To appreciate the people in my life as much as possible. To appreciate everything as much as possible. Who knows what the future will bring?"

Initially, doctors gave Ms. Jenkins a 40-percent chance of being cancer-free in five years. Instead, she lived for nine and turned it into a lifetime. She started a jewelry business, plied the public relations trade, raised $100,000 for cancer research, and inspired thousands through a Globe series in 2002 that followed her through a clinical trial for the drug Herceptin.

Suzanne Kreiter photo
Adriana Jenkins, 31 prepares to receive a dose of the experimental breast cancer drug Herceptin in a clinical trial.

Ms. Jenkins, whose illness returned as a brain tumor and then cancer cells in her spinal fluid, died Wednesday in her Watertown home. She was 41 and, in her last weeks, wrote an essay calling for more attention and funding for the kind of cancer research that extended her life. "A Dying Wish" was published on-line by Forbes magazine the day she died.

"She was one of the most incredibly brave women I have ever seen," said Dr. Jennifer Ligibel, a medical oncologist in the women's cancer program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who spent nearly a decade caring for Ms. Jenkins. "She was so public with her disease. Her feeling from the very beginning was that she wanted her experience to help other women, and her desire to help other women never flagged through all of the things she went through all these years."

Cancer itself was a nightmare that recurred in the Jenkins family. An only child, Ms. Jenkins was finishing her junior year at Boston University when her mother, Georgeanne Fairfield Jenkins, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a few weeks later. From that grief, Ms. Jenkins emerged determined to lead a life of great joy.

"She was always happy, she enjoyed everything she ever did," said her father, Adrian, of Largo, Fla. "She did all kinds of things. She wanted to learn to ride a motorcycle, so she took a motorbike course. She wanted to learn about things and was ready to grasp life. She had a tremendous network of friends and was obviously well-respected in her profession. I think she had the world by the tail."

So it had been from the beginning. Born in Minneapolis, Ms. Jenkins grew up in Largo after her parents moved to Florida when she was a child.

"She was the most engaging child, a 3-year-old that you could actually enjoy talking to," said her aunt Wendy Barraco of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "She had an extra spark intellectually, an extra curiosity, and she was very outspoken, even as a little girl. You never wondered where you were with her. She just came out with it, and I liked that."

Ms. Jenkins graduated from Largo High School in 1988 and from Boston University in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She returned to Florida for a few years, then resumed life in Boston, where she worked in public relations for Children's Hospital, Regan Communications, and the Yates Network, a firm that works with Boston-area biotechnology companies.

"Adriana started her career as a reporter, so she had the complete perspective on how to bring a story to life," said Barbara Yates, president of the Yates Network, for which Ms. Jenkins worked as a partner the past few years.

"She understood things from the reporter's perspective, she understood things from the company's perspective, and, of course, she understood things from the patient's perspective," Yates said. "And she was bar none one of the most talented writers I've ever worked with. That was her gift, to translate the science and help these companies communicate what they were all about."

When diagnosed in July 2001, Ms. Jenkins was preparing to marry David Halligan. They married on Martha's Vineyard a few weeks after her treatment began. Because the ceremony was a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some relatives had to drive from Winnipeg, Canada, where her mother was from and where her aunt Linda Stechesen still lives.

The marriage ended a few years ago, her father said.

From the wedding sprung an excursion into the world of jewelry design. Frustrated when she couldn't find the right necklace to wear with her strapless gown, Ms. Jenkins designed her first piece of jewelry and found she had inherited some of her mother's artistic talents. She expanded her offerings into her own line while working for Millennium Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge.

Such creativity also formed the foundation for a fund-raiser Ms. Jenkins organized. "Art for Hope" raised more than $100,000 for research focused on inflammatory breast cancer. She had the word "hope" tattooed on her inner left wrist.

"To me," her father said, "she was the most loving and most caring person I've ever met."

Because she knew the chances of a long life were slim and she wanted to help others diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer, Ms. Jenkins granted a Globe reporter and photographer extraordinary access as she participated in the clinical trial for Herceptin. The series followed her from home into doctor's office, from treatment at Dana-Farber into the operating room for a radical mastectomy.

"She really wanted her experience to be something that gave courage to other women, especially younger women," Ligibel said.

"Adriana was a very, very positive person, throughout everything, every step of the way," she said. "As sick as she was, she had such presence of mind. She had a very strong feeling of what she wanted her life to be and what she wanted her death to be, in a way. She was very strong up to the end. I would meet her with bad news after bad news and the calm and the inner spirit she had was truly amazing. At 41 years old, facing just a few weeks, she was incredibly poised and certain of what she wanted. I never ever saw her feeling sorry for herself, ever."

Relatives and friends of Ms. Jenkins will announce a gathering to celebrate the life that she believed gained new focus with her diagnosis and treatment.

"This situation has afforded me the unique opportunity to live my life with a new perspective," she wrote in her journal in 2002, "and has given me the time to make sure I have as few regrets as possible."

Bryan Marquard can be reached at


(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/2002)

At Brigham and Women's Hospital, Adriana and her father Adrian say goodbye before her surgery.

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