Clark College student goes from Stage IV to center stage

Waging a battle against cancer, he will sing at concert to raise funds for him

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter



If you go

What: Clark College Vocal Jazz Ensemble Concert.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Where: Gaiser Hall, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.

Cost: The concert is free, but donations will be accepted. Donations will go to Nathan Jenisch, a member of the jazz ensemble who was recently diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Nathan Jenisch had been feeling bad for months. He was suffering from a nasty, persistent cough, like a smoker's lung-rattle after inhaling a pack of unfiltered cigarettes.

The 24-year-old Clark College student with a passion for singing could feel his breath dissipating amid a persistent tickling in his chest. The air, he said, simply wouldn't come.

After a battery of medical tests in April, doctors presented Jenisch with a dark diagnosis: A shadowy mass of cancerous tumors had accumulated in his chest. Under his armpits, his lymph nodes were infected, while cancer cells crept up his spine and down his sternum. He had Stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic glands, which help regulate the body's immune system.

There is no Stage V.

But far from being grief-stricken at the diagnosis, Jenisch turned to the therapeutic rhythms of music as his outlet.

"I'm not super forthright with emotions and stuff," said Jenisch, a member of the Clark College Jazz Ensemble. "But it can be really nice to go to a piano and freak out on it. It gives me a way to emote that seems very unnatural for me, I guess."

On Friday, he'll bring his voice to Gaiser Hall for the jazz ensemble's annual concert, which promises to be an outlet in more than one way for Jenisch. It will also act as a fundraiser for his recovery.

The idea for the fundraiser came from Janet Reiter, an adjunct music instructor at Clark College, who's been teaching Jenisch for the past three years.

Reiter was one of the first people Jenisch told after receiving his diagnosis. During that conversation, he confided in her. He was worried the illness would prevent him from being an integral part of the jazz ensemble.

"He told me how important staying in the group was to him," Reiter said. "That was sort of a crutch for him to lean on — the music."

Jenisch's breathing is more labored than it used to be, Reiter said. But he's such a talented singer that Reiter nonetheless gave him a solo — albeit a short one.

The ensemble's free spring concert typically acts as a fundraiser for Clark College's music program. People have the opportunity to donate money at the concert. The money goes into the Clark College Foundation account.

But the event is rarely a big moneymaker, Reiter concedes. Last year's concert netted about $300. She hopes this year's event, her last as a Clark College music instructor, does much better.

Reiter received permission to hold the special fundraiser from Miles Jackson, Clark College's dean of social sciences and fine arts.

The fundraiser may not make a significant financial dent, but it's still meaningful, Jenisch said, even though he's embarrassed by all the attention.

Jenisch, who has health coverage through COBRA, estimates that without insurance, his out-of-pocket medical costs would already be around $20,000. Because COBRA doesn't cover everything, Jenisch still has to pay some expenses himself.

Although Hodgkin's lymphoma tends to be a treatable form of cancer early on, complications can arise if it's left untreated. Stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma — the type Jenisch has — is characterized by lumpy masses of cancerous cells. The disease is treated by a drug sequence and chemotherapy, followed by radiation therapy.

Each year, nearly 10,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The five-year survival rate for someone with Stage IV lymphoma is 65 percent.

Reiter, who calls Jenisch a "silent leader in the classroom," said the other members of the jazz ensemble are staying positive.

"I haven't seen any changes in dynamic from the group at all," she said.

Richie Olson, 19, is a member of the jazz ensemble who's fostered a close friendship with Jenisch over the past year. He joins his friend during the three-hour chemotherapy sessions.

At the sessions, the friends shoot the breeze, discussing everything from television to their futures. They stay away from the topic of cancer.

But as much as cancer is a forbidden topic, it's not dismissed entirely. The entire class has rallied behind Jenisch, Olson said. No one could believe that a young guy like Jenisch, outwardly healthy, could get cancer.

"It's kind of united us; it's brought us closer together," Olson said. "It's not something to be excited about, but it has banded us together."

For someone who doesn't like to worry loved ones unduly, or show outward signs of concern, Jenisch said "the cancer is definitely testing" him everyday. But, he adds, "I believe everything happens for a reason."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517;;