WASHINGTON (WUSA) - When smiles seem near impossible, stories about a brave, bright and beautiful woman never fail to bring them back. When cancer took the life of Jessica Bonaiuto, devoted mother and wife, it could not take her powerful and lasting spirit.
"She was energetic. Everyone knew her smile," said Dominic Bonaiuto about his wife, who died on March 14. "She's with me all the time. There aren't moments or days that go by that she's not on our mind...wondering how she'd be doing or how she'd be making us laugh. I don't know when it gets easier."
Dominic and his 9-year-old son Sebastian will join nearly 40,000 people on the National Mall this Saturday in the 22nd annual Komen Race for the Cure. It will be just two years after his wife joined him for the same event. At the time, they were celebrating a "cancer free" label.
"She was diagnosed in the summer of 2008. We learned of the official diagnosis on the last day of kindergarten for my son's first year of school. It was hard to get that call. She frequently described it this way to people: she got the call from the doctor that afternoon and an hour later she had to pick up my son from the bus stop and pretend like nothing was wrong," he said.
At the age of 36, Jessica faced a stage two diagnosis of a particularly aggressive form of cancer. Triple negative breast cancer only affects one out of every ten women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. It rips through the body in the most unforgivable way, but Jessica was determined not to let her son feel that pain.
"We always wanted to be honest and upfront with him. We knew this was serious and we didn't want to hide anything from him," said Dominic. "When she started chemo the first time, we shaved her head and for a while they had the same haircut and he helped with that and we made him part of it. So he felt he wasn't being sheltered from what was happening. It was cute to see him try and care for her and do things for her."
In 2009, Jessica and her family were geared up for the Komen race having just finished her last treatments. She was in remission and the family decided to use the event as a bookend to her fight. They joined a team formed by Dominic's office. He works as Legislative Director for the Virginia Congressman Gerry Connolly. Together with staffers, they united behind the breast cancer cause.
"They were challenging congressional teams to come out and it was a natural for us to do that," said Dominic. "It was fun. At that time, she had just finished treatments earlier in the year and we were like oh, let's go use that as a celebration of survival and us persevering through everything that happened to us in the past year."
The next year, the Bonaiutos went back to living as quickly as they could. They planned trips and spent many days soaking up they glory of each other and their relatives. Sebastian remembers those days fondly, hiking with his mom and all of the times she tried to "torture" him with tickling.
"We were on spring break in the Grand Canyon," said Dominic. "It was the spring of 2010. And she had a severe headache one night that woke her up. She was dizzy and nauseous and almost passed out from the headache. Given what we had been through we thought we should check it out in Arizona. They did a scan and showed something was there. We came back and learned it metastasized in her brain."
"She struggled with it a little. She had doubts about whether or not she could be strong enough about what it was doing to her and to us and our son and to her friends and her family," he said.
In the end, Jessica found great strength in available cancer resources like the Life with Cancer Center at Inova Fairfax in addition to all the friends, family and neighbors who rallied with her. She had counselors at the center who also helped her find a sense of hope she later shared in a video for the hospital.
"It's a tremendous resource for people who have all types of cancer," said Dominic. "That really helped put her in a good place about how she was going to move on from this. She was able to rebuild a more positive perspective on life. She started reaching out to friends who were going through similar experiences. She shared that perspective."
In the video, she shared her fears from when she was first diagnosed and later how she realized "your hopes change after you've been diagnosed with cancer. You no longer daydream about the great things you want out of life because you realize how great every day really is and you just want to be around every day."
Jessica survived a successful brain surgery that year; she was in and out of the hospital in less than a week with no side effects. But in the fall of 2010, a small growth was spotted by doctors. It wasn't much of a concern but at the end of the year, the family was told it had spread again to her brain, her lungs and her bones.
"It's scary and there's not anyone who doesn't know someone who's affected," said Dominic. "The last few months were hard. We had what we called "the talk" with our doctor about what road we were on. It was hard to come to grips with."
Now it's even harder.
"We try to talk about her a lot," said Dominic who revisits stories about Jessica with his son on a daily basis. They will talk about the Grand Canyon trip, their last family trip to Disney World when Jessica was sickest. They talk about the last Christmas Eve they spent together when they ran around the District taking pictures outside at the Capitol Christmas tree and then the White House Christmas tree. "I remind him of how much she loves him and how proud she was of him and everything he did...and that how much a part of her he is and how much a part of him that she is. She will always be with him and her experience and her culture and her love."
Now, Dominic and Sebastian find a tremendous support network among friends and family. Jessica's mother is still living with them at their Alexandria home. She's uprooted herself from Minnesota for as long as it takes to get adjusted. In the end, Dominic says he finds the greatest strength of all from his own son.
"He's the only piece of her I have left," he said.