‘It was my ladies’: How a Church historian undergoing chemo found comfort in the lives of early Latter-day Saint women


In this week's episode of This Is the Gospel, Jenny's life comes to a screeching halt when a trip to the doctor reveals she has acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Determined to continue her life mission of studying Latter-day Saint women's history, Jenny endures multiple rounds of chemotherapy and painful bone marrow transplants as the cancer returns a staggering three times. But during her lowest moments of pain and suffering, Jenny finds solace in the stalwart spirits of the women she has come to know so well.

An adapted excerpt from the story is below. Listen to the full episode here or read the transcript here

My brother-in-law sent my mom on the first plane to D.C. When she walked into the room, it was 11:30 at night and she walked into the room and we both just started crying. She just climbed into bed with me and held me and told me how much she loved me. 

The next day was Sunday and another doctor came in and sat down to talk to me and she said "Now, I want to know what some of your concerns are. Are you afraid of dying?" And I'm like, "What!? No, I am in the middle of so many good things, and I have a mission in life." I had felt compelled to do Latter-day Saint women's history, and I said, "No, I'm not gonna die, and my mission life isn't done. And plus, I've got to have kids. I mean, my patriarchal blessing says that I'll have children." I don't think I used that word because she wouldn't have known what that was. But she said, "Oh, honey, we need to talk." She explained the gravity of the situation and I still—don't think it really sunk in. 

I had felt so strongly about doing Latter-day Saint women's history. It was a circuitous route for me to figure out what my mission in life was. As a research assistant working for two women historians, I was reading the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes. It was like their words were speaking to me. I could hear them whispering, telling me that they existed, that they were important people, that they had done a great work. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to tell everyone about these women, about Emma Smith, and Eliza R. Snow, and Elizabeth Ann Whitney, and the extraordinary things that they were doing. I saw how progressive and incredible these women were—the work that they did, going to medical school and storing grain—and I loved them. I wanted to learn more about them. I wanted to share their voices with other people. 

I did feel like Heavenly Father was communicating to me that this was my life mission, and that He and others would be with me. That is what sent me to graduate school, and that's what sent me to Fairfax, Virginia, to get a PhD in American history at George Mason University. But suddenly, here I was in a hospital in Arlington, Virginia, realizing that my life was coming to a screeching halt. 

I was actually grateful that my bishop decided to keep me in as Relief Society president. It really kept my mind off of the craziness of chemo and going bald, and I was surrounded by love. And it wasn't just the friends or my mom who were there, it was my ladies. It was Emma and Eliza and Emmeline and Zina, and I knew they were there to bolster me up and to help me. 

I made it through two years of chemo. After my chemo, I was in remission. My body still wasn't quite the same. I knew I was never going to run another marathon, but I was able to press forward and finished my dissertation. So I graduated, and I landed my dream job working at the Church History Department in Salt Lake City. I moved to Utah, I bought a house, and I started my first project. I [also] went in to establish continuing care with a blood cancer clinic at LDS Hospital. 

They took my blood and suddenly wanted to do another bone marrow biopsy. I knew I was in trouble. So I called my mom and she came up to Salt Lake, and I called a neighbor from my ward who came and gave me a priesthood blessing. He told me that this, "Will just be a small blip in your life. You have a lot of things to do." But sure enough, they could quickly tell that my leukemia had returned and that my blood was 98% leukemic. . . . This took me out of work for another year. And this time, with this second diagnosis of recurrence, I was mad.

I had lined up everything. Everything was ready, everything was in place. I was mad that God would allow this to happen. That He had preserved me through that first bout of cancer, and that I knew this was going to be a long road. I was mad at my body for not holding up like I wanted it to. I was mad that I was going to have to tell my new job that I was going to need to take some time off. I was mad that the project I was working on wasn't going to get done. I was mad. 

And really, it was really hard for me to pray. I wasn't in a good place with God. I couldn't open my heart to Him because I had closed it up because I was scared and I was mad. 

So at this point, I needed to have a bone marrow transplant. Now, in preparation for a bone marrow transplant, they have to obliterate your bone marrow so that when they give you these new stem cells, they'll know to create new bone marrow. Before my bone marrow transplant, I had another priesthood blessing from a man who was a friend of mine in my stake presidency. 

He told me that the Lord had a plan for me, and that my life would be preserved. That nothing would prevent me from filling my mission. He promised me that my health would ebb and flow, but that I would live and that I would be a witness to His mighty hand. 

So I did it. I went in for the bone marrow transplant. My brother, Ben, was a perfect match, and bless his heart, he was such a trooper. It was an awful experience. I had to do full body radiation. I had to do some brain radiation. I was scared to death that I was gonna lose some of my ability to think and write and do research. I really struggled with that, but I did it. And almost immediately after the transplant, I started experiencing some of those side effects. 

My esophagus was inflamed, I couldn't drink or eat anything. I was on fluids and nutrients and I was so miserable. I was on a pain pump and I don't remember hardly anything for probably two weeks. I remember one doctor coming in and saying, "Jenny, we have to bring you to the brink of death so that we can bring you back to life." It was a long, hard, seven or eight weeks in the hospital, and then a long, hard recovery period.

After about a year, I started feeling better. I went back to work. We were doing a collection of women's discourses, a book, and I loved it. Finding these women brought me so much energy and hope and joy. As my body was recovering, I could feel them pulsating through my blood. The book was coming out, I was so excited. I knew that these women were proud that their words were being made accessible, and that I knew that other women would find such joy and hope and faith in their words. I was so excited and invigorated and I was ready for my next projects when I came to understand at a follow-up at my clinic that my leukemia had come back. 

This time it had not entered my bones. My brother's marrow had made my marrow strong enough to stop it from entering the marrow, but my DNA was still wanting to form lymphoblastic leukemia. So it went to the next blood barrier, which was my bone. I had leukemic lesions on my spine and sternum and ribs. 

I remember I was at the conference, the Western History Association Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota. I got a call from my doctor. And she said, "Jenny, I'm sorry, Your cancer is back, and you're going to have to do another bone marrow transplant." I was done. I was like, "I'm not going through that again. I will not do that again." There's there's such a low chance of success with a second bone marrow transplant. Every time the cancer recurs, you have less and less of a chance of overcoming it and of being cured. I was at my wits' end. 

I remember meeting one day with my pulmonologist who told me that his son had died a year previous of a drug overdose. He said, "Jenny, you're not 80 years old. My son has 0% chance of living, but you, even if you have 10% chance of living, you have to try." I thought all of a sudden of that priesthood blessing that I'd had before my transplant, where I had been told that I had a mighty work to perform and that my life would not end until that mission had been filled. And I realized that I needed to do everything that I could to keep my body alive. And so I agreed.

Just before the second transplant from my other brother, we discovered that I had pneumonia. We had to get that cleared up before we could move forward with the transplant. But it was elusive, we couldn't figure out what was causing the pneumonia. So for three months I was on oxygen, and I have never felt so close to death in my life. All I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and sleep. 

I remembered the account of Jane Snyder Richards. She was a woman from upstate New York, who had married and come to Nauvoo and had a baby. A beautiful daughter named, "Wealthy." I love that name. Her husband, as soon as the Saints were leaving Nauvoo, her husband was called to go on a mission to England, and she was pregnant with a second baby. He left, and that baby was born and lived about an hour and died. Her daughter, Wealthy, the toddler, was getting very sick, and there was no food to give to her. And Jane also was very sick. And soon, Wealthy died. And Jane had no strength. She had no ability to carry on–she was all alone. And she remembered she said, "I only lived because I could not die." 

I thought a lot about that. I thought about how death wouldn't be so bad. It would be great to be released from this physical body. But I knew that I had to live. I knew that I had to fulfill my mission.

I didn't even have the energy to pray or to seek for revelation. I was giving everything I could to surviving. One day two friends came to visit and had lunch. It was so good to see friends and I had this little spark of revelation. It was that little spark that made me realize, "Oh, I have a work to do. We've got to figure this out." And so I realized that I had to do everything that I could to figure out what the pneumonia was so that I could then have the bone marrow transplant so that I could then preserve my body. 

So I called my bishop. He came over and we decided to have a ward fast. A lot of my friends joined in and it was a really tender thing. They prayed that the doctors would discover what was happening, how we could fix the pneumonia, and move on to the transplant. We weren't praying for mighty miracles that I would all of a sudden be healed and be able to run another marathon. We were just praying for information. And it came. 

They realized that I had inflammation in my lungs from the targeted radiation to those leukemic lesions on my ribs and spine and sternum. So they put me on steroids and almost immediately the pneumonia was gone. I was able to have that second bone marrow transplant. It just so happened to be on Good Friday where I received the blood of my brother. He gave me new life, and I'm so grateful for that.

The process wasn't as bad the second time. I was able to stay at home and able to heal quite quickly and I was able to get back into work as soon as possible. At the same time, I received an assignment to write a book about Emma Smith and I was really excited. It was a slow process as I learned to listen to my body and give myself naps and go on walks and build up the energy and the lung capacity. 

As I finished the book, I started to feel Emma with me. I began to understand what she had felt when time after time, something had come up and prevented her from doing what she wanted to do. I knew that feeling, and I knew that she knew that I knew. She received a revelation in 1830 instructing her to select hymns. That didn't happen for six years. She was also taught to expound scripture and exhort the Church, that she was an elect lady. That didn't happen for 12 years when the Relief Society began 1842. 

I felt suddenly like my life experience was really preparing me to understand this length of time and this need to be patient in the Lord. To—as Emma was told—take the time to study and learn. I still don't believe that God planned for me to suffer in such a physical way. But I do believe that He intended for me to have an earthly, mortal experience. He would never leave me alone, that I would have Him and my Heavenly Mother, that I would have Jesus Christ, and I would have my host of women with me, and that with them, I can do it. 

Listen to the full episode here or read the transcript here.

Lead image courtesy Jenny Reeder

Books written and compiled by Jenny Reeder about Latter-day Saint women:

Drawing upon letters written by Emma to Joseph and to many others, along with minutes from Relief Society meetings and other artifacts, this book sketches a more complete portrait of this elect lady. It allows each of us to become personally acquainted with Emma as we learn more about her essential work as a leader, a wife, and a mother in the early days of the Church. First: The Life and Faith of Emma Smith is available now at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com.

From the banks of the frozen Lake Erie in early May 1831, Lucy Mack Smith admonished her despondent fellow Saints. "Where is your faith in God?" she asked. "If I could make my voice to sound as loud as the trumpet of Michael the archangel I would declare the truth from land to land and from sea to sea."

At the Pulpit contains fifty-four discourses given by Latter-day Saint women throughout the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like Lucy Mack Smith, these women drew on inspiration and experience to declare their understanding of eternal truths. Available now at Deseret Book stores and on deseretbook.com


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