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Obituary: Devoted journalist Jessica Lum, 25, dies after struggle with cancer

By Kristen Taketa

Jan. 22, 2013 1:53 a.m.

The original version of this article contained an error and has been changed. See the bottom of the article for additional information. 

Jessica Lum – a UCLA alumna, former Daily Bruin photo editor and talented and understanding storyteller – died on Jan. 13 after a four-year battle with a rare, incurable cancer. She was 25.

Lum’s friends and colleagues knew her as a gifted journalist who could talk to anyone and tell stories of people that others could not.

She had a personality so charismatic it was almost hard to describe, said Anthony Pesce, former Daily Bruin editor in chief who worked with her.

“Some people just have that personality where you feel comfortable,” Pesce said. “You’d feel like you were paid attention to … like she understood you.”

A Sacramento native, Lum enrolled at UCLA in 2005 and joined the Daily Bruin as a photographer that fall. She became an assistant photo editor the next year.

At The Bruin, Lum helped cover the birth of the frozen yogurt craze in Westwood, UCLA students who quit gang life for a college education and UCLA’s 2006 victory against USC football.

The summer before her senior year at UCLA, Lum flew to Thailand to report on HIV/AIDS and UCLA research in the country for The Bruin. The trip was funded by the Bridget O’Brien scholarship, which was established in memory of a Daily Bruin photo editor who died in 2007.

While in Thailand, Lum talked kindly with people living on the margins of society and quickly earned their trust, said Robert Faturechi, a former Daily Bruin news editor who traveled to Thailand with Lum.

“You could tell … she really cared about the people she was covering,” said Audrey Kuo, a former Daily Bruin director of editorial development who worked with Lum.

In her last Daily Bruin column in 2009, Lum explained the reason for her love of journalism: people.

“The most important parts of our newspaper are the people: the people in our words and photographs, as well as those who give those people voices in our stories,” she wrote. “These people have created so many rich experiences and memories, and have become one of the most important parts of my life.”

Lum also worked at UCLA Recreation, where she took photos at summer camps for a UCLA Recreation website, and was involved in the Christian student group Grace on Campus.

In 2008, Lum left her classes and job as the Daily Bruin photo editor to return home after being diagnosed with metastatic pheochromocytoma, a rare, terminal cancer. Her illness, however, did not stop her from sharing updates about her health through Facebook to more than 1,000 friends.

When she had to stay in a room for radiation therapy for a week, she brought her laptop covered in saran wrap to protect it and to keep her friends updated, said Derek Liu, former Daily Bruin photographer.

“I have a very, very aggressive cancer, and it’s also very advanced,” Lum said in a 2009 Facebook post, according to a Sacramento Bee obituary. “Good for it, very bad for me. But hey, if I die, I’m taking the cancer out with me, too.”

Lum erased her Facebook posts about her illness when her symptoms went away temporarily.

Even though she left school early, UCLA still gave her an English degree. She enrolled in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2010.

“(Lum) kept on living like there was nothing stopping her,” said Amy Emmert, media adviser for the Daily Bruin. “That kind of bravery, that toughness, that unflappable spirit – she always had those qualities about her.”

For her master’s thesis, Lum camped in an RV for several weeks in the Colorado Desert, taking video and photos of people living in Slab City – a place where people give up city and suburban life for desert life. The project won an Online News Association award, which recognizes digital journalists around the world.

Last year, Lum graduated from UC Berkeley and moved back to Los Angeles for an online media job at Southern California Public Radio KPCC.

But her journalism career was cut short when her cancer symptoms returned suddenly and severely in August.

After hearing her condition had worsened, Chris Tanouye, whom Lum first met during their freshman orientation at UCLA, rushed home and asked his mother for any ring she had. He proposed to Lum in her hospital bed with his mother’s engagement ring, he said.

“She always had something interesting to say. That’s why so many people were drawn to her. She was always very outgoing, very sociable … and very driven,” Tanouye said. “She did so much to get the most out of life. She got a lot out of a little.”

Lum is survived by her parents, Anna and Bob Lum, sister Bethany Ayres and fiance Tanouye. Her friends and family will hold a memorial service on Feb. 2 at the Chinese Grace Bible Church in Sacramento at 9:30 a.m.

Correction: Chris Tanouye proposed to Jessica Lum in her hospital bed with his mother’s engagement ring.

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Kristen Taketa
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