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Love and laughter get them through

Lakeridge High School 2007 graduate Jessi Gates stays strong through her mom's fight with cancer and accepts a special senior honor
by: Vern Uyetake, Patti Gates relaxes at her Lake Oswego home with her daughter, Jessi Gates. Jessi, a 2007 Lakeridge High School graduate, received the school’s annual Counseling Services Merit Award for helping her mom through two years of cancer – and making it through high school in the meantime.

Greg and Patti Gates had a hunch that something special would happen to their daughter, Jessi, at the Lakeridge High School annual senior awards ceremony.

They didn't know what exactly, but a letter sent home by the school hinted that Jessi was an award winner.

So when counselor Paula Emery stepped to the mic and began describing a senior who made it through high school despite her mom's ongoing fight with cancer, Greg and Patti knew it was Jessi's moment to shine.

Jessi didn't see her class rise in a thunderous standing ovation as she turned her back to receive the Counseling Services Merit Award.

But Patti - whose initial goal was to live to see her daughter graduate - did.

'There were tears running down our faces ... We just lost it,' Greg recalled.

'It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,' Jessi said of receiving the award. 'It was a feeling of 'I did it.''

Like many 15-year-olds, Jessi was stubborn, fought regularly with her parents and lacked appreciation.

That began to change when Patti was diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer in March 2005.

Jessi felt angry, frustrated and found it difficult to talk to anyone about what was happening to her family. At school, she didn't tell her friends or teachers, and found it hard to focus on her work, especially reading stories about tragedy.

'I thought I was all alone and no one knew what I was going through,' Jessi said,

Patti's oncologist immediately started aggressive chemotherapy to shrink the three-inch tumor inside her breast. On the first day of treatment, Jessi left school to be with her mom.

'Once you see it, it's not as scary,' Jessi said.

By May, the tumor remained the same, so Patti underwent an urgent double mastectomy. At Jessi's first prom picture session a few days later, Patti dressed in a long sweater to hide the surgical tubes and drains attached to her body.

The chemotherapy and radiation continued for months while Patti managing Healthy Pet, a pet store on Boones Ferry Road in Lake Oswego.

'I watch her and think, 'If she can do that, then I can do this,'' Jessi said. 'It helps keep me going.'

Soon, Jessi realized that talking to people about her mom's cancer was the only way she, too, would survive.

She met other students who had parents with cancer, or who had lost them to the disease. As time went on, Jessi began offering them help, too.

'I've matured a lot faster than everybody else,' Jessi said. 'You realize what your priorities and values are.'

Lakeridge teachers and Emery, Jessi's counselor, gave guidance and support. The Lakeridge dance team also pitched in. With dance, Jessi was able to take her mind off her mom.

But just when the Gates family thought their troubles were over and they could move on, doctors told Patti that a tumor had re-appeared in the surgery scar tissue. It eventually moved to her shoulder.

Patti continues to undergo treatment in hopes that the tumor will shrink. So far, she's been stable for one year and remains optimistic.

'I don't want to be defined by my cancer,' Patti always says.

That thought is echoed by Jessi, who does not want to be defined as a child of a cancer patient.

Still, the disease affects the family's day-to-day life. To help confront the situation in a positive way, Jessi organized a team of 25 friends to participate in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure to honor Patti.

'It was pretty powerful,' Patti told Jessi. 'That was about the nicest thing you've ever done for me.'

Patti longs to keep home life as normal as possible for Jessi and her brother Devin, a Lakeridge incoming junior. She's often tired, however, and sleeps in her time off from work. She's also lost 30 pounds.

Healthy Pet's regular customers continue to act as a support system. Gates' friends and family bring dinners to the home every other night.

'Working has helped me out because I'm not the type of person who would just hide away,' Patti said. 'It helps get my mind off of (the cancer).'

Each day, Patti and Jessi take time to sit, talk and check in with each other. This fall, Jessi will take off for her first year at the University of Oregon. The move will require her to let go of her mom, but it's close enough for the occasional visit.

'At first she didn't want to go away, but I said, 'You don't need to be right down the street from me, I'll be OK,'' Patti said.

Jessi, an aspiring model, hopes to become a counselor and work with teens dealing with cancer.

'A lot of teen-agers take their parents for granted,' Jessi said. 'I realized that she's my mom ... my one and only mom.'

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