By Valerie Shelton
On the surface, 37-year-old Karyn Jakobs is your typical supermom. Her effervescent personality allows her to keep up with five busy kids—serving as their home-school teacher, their chauffer taking them to dance lessons, sports and other activities, and their chef preparing scrumptious homemade meals for the family.
Seeing the stay-at-home mom in action you would never know that beneath the joyful smile, is a body fighting a fierce battle with an aggressive and rare disease—medullary thyroid cancer.
The uncommon cancer strain affects a mere 3 percent of all thyroid cancer patients and most of that 3 percent are genetically predisposed to the condition, according to the American Association of Endocrine Surgeons.
Jakobs’ strain, however, is completely sporadic and is even more unusual because of her young age.
That is why when Jakobs first started experiencing symptoms five years ago, cancer was the last thing on her mind.
It was the summer of 2010 and the Jakobs family had just moved to Oklahoma. Jakobs kept getting sick, but thought nothing of it as the rest of the family was also ill, having to adjust to the new environment. Even though Jakobs had her thyroid tested, nothing showed up as thyroid cancer can’t be detected from blood work, only through an ultrasound. In January 2011, however, her symptoms became more severe—her thyroid was enlarged—so she went to the doctor again. That time, she tested positive for influenza which was thought to be the root of the problem.
“Looking back, I should have asked for an ultrasound then, I just wasn’t thinking it’s anything serious,” Jakobs said. “I had an infant and cancer was the last thing on my mind—the baby wasn’t sleeping, I got up during the night and I had four other kids to look after.”
Then in March 2011, Jakobs fell ill again with a bad case of pink eye that wouldn’t go away. She couldn’t get a quick appointment with her doctor, so she went to a Wal-Mart walk-in clinic. There, a nurse urged her to get to the emergency room right away, as Jakobs’ trachea was deviated and if it got any worse she wouldn’t be able to breath. It was at that time that Jakobs finally had a CT scan which showed a large mass wrapped around her trachea and lymph nodes double the size they should be.
Still, she did have pink eye, an ear infection and strep throat to boot so the questions about the mass would not get answered until a couple weeks down the line.
“At this point, the doctor mentioned it could be cancer, but I still wasn’t thinking that because I was really sick,” Jakobs said.
Two weeks went by before Jakobs finally made it to the endocrinologist who did a biopsy and confirmed that the mass was indeed cancerous.
Even then—even when the diagnosis was confirmed by the nurse over the phone—Jakobs and her family still stayed calm.
“The nurse told us the prognosis was good,” Jim Jakobs said. “You hear thyroid cancer and you think that is one of the good ones to have, if you’re going to have cancer because you usually just take the thyroid out and it’s gone. We didn’t realize what we were dealing with though.”
Then they got the news from the doctor—the cancer was medullary and at stage three. Chances of survival? Fifty percent for 10 years.
“Right at that moment, our world stopped,” Jim said.
For days, the Karyn and Jim say they don’t even know how their children got fed and bathed. They had just moved across the country, away from their family in Sacramento, and no idea what to do. They were hopeful that surgery would be the ticket to freedom from the cancer that reared it’s ugly head into their lives so suddenly.
On April 21, 2011, Jakobs had the surgery at one of the best facilities in the nation—the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. For months afterward it looked like the surgery had been successful. Unfortunately, thought the mass was gone, the cancer had spread.
In August of 2012, legions were found in her lungs and in January 2013, the were on her liver. The scary new survival odds? Thirty to 35 percent for four years.
Having past the four-year mark, Jakobs isn’t sure what her future holds.
“The doctor said I’m writing my own history,” Jakobs said.
Knowing that something tragic could happen at any moment, though, the family decided to move back to California to be close to extended family. Their freshly planted roots are just a couple blocks away from Clovis Community College.
Unlike other cancers, thyroid cancer doesn’t respond to chemotherapy or radiation, so while few treatments are available to her she rarely feels sick or weak like other cancer patients. In that aspect she is glad—glad to have enough energy to focus on her kids.
Jakobs’ five kids are Ben, 13, Zack, 11, Eva, 9, Sam, 7 and Livi, 5.
The diagnosis actually prompted Jakobs to do something she had always dreamed of—home school her kids.
“Homeschooling had always been laid on my heart but I was afraid to do it, I kept thinking I wasn’t smart enough or I may mess them up and they’re not going to be socialized,” she said. “Then, I got this diagnosis and I said, you know what I’m going to do this because if I end up passing away I want to able, when I’m on my deathbed, to know that I just poured into them in the time I had left.”
Her children, of course, hope mom beats the odds and is able to spend many years with them.
“I’m really scared because I don’t want to lose my mom and the cancer is in a place that is very rare and you can’t get it out so I’m scared about her future,” said Zack. “I hope it will disappear and God will help her.”
Whatever happens, Jakobs said her biggest concern is for her kids.
“Obviously I want to see my kids grow up and I want to be there for them, but, I know that God loves them more than I could ever love them so if I’m taken out of the picture I just have to trust that they will be taken care of,” Jakobs said. “I know for me how it’s going to end. The battle has already been won so if I die today or 30 years from now, I have a peace and know it will be good for me either way, my concern is always them. Jim is a great dad, but it’s not meant for one parent to be both mom and dad. It would be a challenge and I have to trust that there would be someone else there who could step in and help make sure to shepherd our kids through a very hard time.”
Although she is at peace, she refuses to stop fighting.
Currently, Karyn and Jim and researching alternative treatments in the hopes that she won’t have to rely on Targeted Kinase Inhibitors (TKI) medicine to relieve her budding symptoms. The family is also raising money so if and when a study is found, she can afford to be part of it. To donate to the family, visit www.gofundme.com/savingkaryn.
Meanwhile, until a cure is found or God brings her home, Jakobs said she will continue doing the things she loves—spending time with the family, cooking, running, reading, volunteering at Fairwinds and getting involved at New Covenant Church.
“I just want to be a normal mom blending in with all the other normal moms,” she said.