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Woman's poignant obituary urges others to get a mammogram, always say 'I love you'

Jennifer Summer's obituary, written by her best friend, is based on her life philosophy.
Self-portrait by Jennifer Summer

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/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

Jennifer Summer’s loved ones didn’t want a “sterile” obituary for a 41-year-old who loved her son, mermaids, art and swearing like a sailor.

So the poignant, warm and often funny tribute — written by one of her best friends — lists things people could do to be more like her, like figuring out what makes someone’s heart beat faster, living each day like it’s the last to make an off-color joke, and making Christmas packages “absolutely epic.”

Summer, a photographer who lived in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, died this month after what she thought was an ear infection turned out to be breast cancer that spread to her brain.

“Get a mammogram, or encourage someone you love to get one,” Summer’s obituary reads.

“Make kindness your religion. Say ‘I love you’ often. Every time you talk. Every time you see each other. Every time you leave. Love endures all things, even death.”

Actor John Fugelsang, who was photographed by Summer, was struck by how often she said "I love you" and was inspired to say it more himself, he wrote in his tribute.

Summer's obituary lists other life advice based on her philosophy:

“Make new friends literally everywhere you go. The gas station. Starbucks. Target. The thrift shop. Standing in line in the fabric store. Public restrooms!”

“Celebrate the people you love like it’s your ding-dang paid occupation, each day, on every occasion.”

“Make art. Make love. Make someone smile by proclaiming your love for them IN ALL CAPS.”

Sudden vertigo

Summer urged her loved ones to get regular medical checkups after her unexpected cancer diagnosis, said Cassie Fox, who wrote the obituary. They had been friends for almost 20 years.

“We used to call each other chosen family. She was almost like a sister to me,” Fox told TODAY. “I think there was a lot of sadness and regret on her part,” about not getting screened for cancer sooner, she added.

Summer, left, and Cassie Fox enjoy time together in 2019.Courtesy Cassie Fox

Summer found a lump on her breast a few years ago, but was dealing with a friend’s death at the time and hated going to the doctor, so she ignored it, Fox said.

In December 2016, Summer began feeling dizzy and off-balance, symptoms that doctors blamed on an ear infection. But when a course of antibiotics didn’t help, Summer went to the emergency room in February of 2017. Scans revealed she had breast cancer that had spread to her brain, where a tumor was blocking the flow of her spinal fluid. The mass was removed a few days later.

“The doctor who did the surgery said at the time that normally he would only see a tumor like that during an autopsy — it was that close to killing her,” Fox said.

“We were lucky we got three years with her after it was discovered.”

The cancer was also found on her spine and other places in her body. Summer received radiation and chemotherapy, and responded well to treatment for a long time, Fox said.

She loved water and the mythology associated with mermaids, so last summer, her aunt arranged for Summer and her best friends to attend “mermaid school” in Chicago, where they learned how to swim with mermaid tails.

Summer, seen in the middle wearing the orange tail, took part in a "mermaid school" with her friends in Chicago in 2019.Courtesy Cassie Fox

Summer also loved her annual trips to Lake Erie with her son Dakota, who is now 15.

Last fall, scans found many more cancerous spots on her brain. She was exhausted from her radiation treatments and was struggling to breathe. After a hospital stay, she returned home on hospice care. She died on Feb. 11.

“Jennifer leaves a terrible hole in the fabric of the universe,” her obituary read. “She’s still out there somewhere, swimming in starlight, shining like the moon.”

Dakota, whose father also died recently, will be taken care of by Summer's aunt.