Jenny Nakata’s sister, Michelle Robinett, recalls, “Four doctors missed Jenny’s pancreatic cancer. It took a trip to the Emergency Room in February, 2016 to find it.” Jenny Nakata first began experiencing perplexing symptoms at the end of November, 2015. Jenny was young, extremely healthy and active. The 39-year-old bank fraud analyst had taken up running when she was inspired by watching her sister, Sarah Nakata, finish a half-marathon. Jenny had rarely been sick in her life when she began experiencing lower abdominal pain. Thus began the medical nightmare which ultimately took a beloved 39-year-old woman from her family. Within just six months, she had passed away from stage IV pancreatic cancer.
In November, 2015, Jenny started waking up in the middle of the night with abdominal pains. The pains were severe enough that they prevented her from getting back to sleep. Eventually, the pain cropped up at other times, such as after a meal. Next, the pain seemed to spread to her back. At this point she could barely eat. She felt extremely bloated and began vomiting. Jenny saw her primary care doctor. Her symptoms seemed to point to a gallbladder issue. When an ultrasound showed that she did, in fact, have a gallstone, everyone believed that her problem had been located. Unfortunately, her symptoms did not go away following gallbladder surgery.
Eventually Jenny had another scan. This time, the doctor found something else of concern. This second scan revealed a spot on her pancreas. Jenny was immediately admitted to the hospital. Sarah remembers the oncologist telling Jenny, “We need to take another scan, but there is a mass on your pancreas that is very concerning.” The next scan showed even worse news: Jenny had lesions on her liver. She underwent a liver biopsy on February 26th. The results showed that she had stage IV pancreatic cancer.
Jenny’s oncologist wanted to be very aggressive. When Jenny went in to have her chemotherapy port installed, she experienced her first complication. She vomited while under anesthesia. Concerned that Jenny had a digestive tract obstruction, the surgeon ordered an endoscopic ultrasound. The EUS showed an intestinal obstruction, and Jenny had to have her intestines rerouted to another part of her stomach so she could eat.
The medical team held out hope that Jenny would recover enough from her surgery in ten days so she could begin chemotherapy. Michelle explains, “Jenny was extremely malnourished at that point. They were trying to get her healthy enough so she could undergo chemo.” Jenny was regaining her strength, but then came the second setback. She spiked a fever and had to return to the hospital. The tumor had perforated her bowel which led to an infection. Recognizing how delicate her condition was, Jenny’s medical team recommended that they do inpatient chemotherapy. They were afraid that she would develop sepsis.
Jenny wanted to fight her cancer with everything she had. She agreed to start inpatient chemotherapy. Unfortunately the day after her chemo ended, she developed another fever. The infection had traveled through her blood to her chemo port. Michelle says, “She was fighting three things: the cancer, the infection caused by the cancer and a perforated bowel. It can take three years or more to recover from something like that.” Unfortunately, Jenny was unable to recover. Diagnosed on February 26th, she passed away on April 24th, 2016.
“Jenny was extremely generous, kind and fun-loving. She loved New Kids on the Block. Prior to her symptoms starting, she had gone on a New Kids on the Block Cruise. She loved music, loved to dance and loved the Denver Broncos,” Michelle explains. Wes and Michiko Nakata raised their three daughters, Jenny, Michelle and Sarah in Mesa, Arizona. All three girls were avid dancers throughout their childhoods.
Michelle & Sarah Run for Jenny
Sarah, the youngest of the sisters, took up running in middle school. She recalls, “I had a PE teacher who made me run the mile every Friday. I didn’t like it, but I became very good at it. From the beginning to the end of the year, I shaved off a ton of time.” Sarah has continued running since the 8th grade. Now a teacher herself, she coaches cross country and track and field. She has also kept up her own running program for all of these years. Jenny had been her biggest supporter. She came to every race that Sarah ran and cheered her on. She says, “Any race I did, whether it was a marathon, half, 10 or 5K, Jenny was always at the finish line.” Soon, Jenny was inspired to give racing a try. Though she had not been particularly athletic as an adult, she quickly discovered that she loved racing. She did a walk/run combination for all of the races she did, and felt an enormous sense of accomplishment at every finish line. Sarah was now the one waiting at the finish line to cheer Jenny on as she finished each race.
Sarah has taken her sister’s illness and passing extremely hard. “Jenny and I were best friends, even though we were sisters.” The two women were so close, they even lived across the street from one another. Sarah felt that she had to find a way to honor her sister’s memory. “I wanted to find healing through the grief. I wanted to keep her legacy alive.”
Sarah knew that she wanted to run in Jenny’s honor. She says, “When I found Project Purple, I knew it was the perfect charity to support.” Though Michelle ‘strongly dislikes running’, she wanted to join Sarah so they could both run for their sister. Their father’s large family lives in Denver, so the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll half-marathon seemed like the perfect race for them to run. They put the word to the family to see if anyone else wanted to be a part of their team. As of now, they have 12 people signed on to run for Project Purple in Denver. Michelle says, “We have all felt really humbled and overwhelmed by people’s generosity and willingness to support us. Our dad is walking the 10k with our mom. Initially he had reservations about fundraising, but within his first two days, he had raised over $1000.00. Our whole family has been really overwhelmed in a great way by the generosity of our friends and family.”
“Jenny was a very generous person and was super kind. It is wonderful knowing the amount of people who have surrounded us with support through this journey. Jenny would have done the same for others in a heartbeat. Even during her cancer journey, she would have done anything to help others.”
Jenny’s favorite color was purple, the color associated with pancreatic cancer awareness. Everyone wore purple to Jenny’s memorial service. Sarah says, “It will be great that everyone who is racing for her in Denver will be racing in purple.” Jenny and Sarah had previously run several Rock ‘n’ Roll races together. “The Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll feels like the one we need to do. As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘Let’s do this for Jenny.”
Please support Sarah and Michelle as they run for their sister, Jenny by making a tax-deductible donation at the following links: