At first, the clues were small that ten year-old Lauren Cunningham was battling something more than the viral sinus infection suspected by her pediatrician. Intermittent facial pain. A sluggish swing of the softball bat. Longer naps. Nausea. Then one morning, Lauren woke up with her left eye inexplicably turned inward. An MRI at the local emergency room revealed a possible tumor in her brain. But the ER doctors said that wasn’t all – Lauren also had leukemia.
Lauren was rushed to Nationwide Children’s Hospital by ambulance. There, physicians discovered that Lauren had so many leukemia cells in her blood that she was at risk of kidney and lung failure if she did not receive treatment quickly. In order to receive this treatment safely, she had to be put on a ventilator and placed in a medically induced coma for several days. While she was in this coma, machines removed some of the leukemia cells and kidney-harming chemicals released by the leukemia cells from her blood. Once these treatments were complete, and while still on the ventilator, chemotherapy was started. The “brain tumor” turned out to be multiple small patches of blood that had settled on her brain, causing facial symptoms that looked very similar to a stroke.
“They said ninety percent of her white blood cells were leukemia cells, that she was very sick and might not make it,” says mother Mariah. “It was such a helpless feeling, but we were immediately supported by a team of doctors, nurses, clergy, social workers, therapists – everyone was totally focused on helping Lauren and helping us. Without a doubt, the doctors at Nationwide Children’s saved Lauren’s life that day.”
Lauren was ultimately diagnosed with T Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a rare type of leukemia with much lower survival rates compared to more commonly found types of ALL. She immediately started a grueling regimen of chemotherapy, and suffered many of the typical side effects like hair loss, fevers and constant nausea.
Never one to shy away from a moment to talk to people, Lauren created video diaries to chronicle what it’s like to be a ten year-old with cancer. What it’s like to take multiple medications, to shave her head when there’s not enough hair left, to throw up in the car on the way to an appointment, to curl up whimpering in a soft pink blanket because she feels so sick.
On camera, she is matter-of-fact, cheerful. She can also look straight in the lens and unabashedly say, “Donate so that kids like me can get treatment. So that kids like me don’t die.”
Like many other children with leukemia, Lauren’s life was most at risk during the first few weeks of her diagnosis and treatment, but – also like many other children with leukemia – the rest of her course has not been smooth sailing. A seizure, likely from damage caused by the bleeding in her brain, required another trip to the ICU, though fortunately a brief one this time around. Lauren recovered, and pushed on, charming everyone around her every chance she got. In one instant, she can be chattering happily with the staff about doing crafts with the art therapist, getting a massage, or playing with dolls – and in the next instant, expressing a wry sense of humor and resilience more typically found in someone twice her age.
“Without missing a beat, after getting sick she’ll say: ‘Phew, that wasn't what I was expecting' or ‘Gosh, we forgot to brush my hair today’ even though she lost her long curls to chemo early on,” says Mariah.
Lauren will be receiving chemotherapy for at least the next year and a half. Her leukemia cells were collected and stored as part of a large “bank” of cancer cells, which will allow doctors to better understand why normal cells become leukemia cells and study ways to better treat leukemia like Lauren’s.
“She’s absolutely amazing. She’s lost all of her hair. Her face is swollen from the medications she is on. She has suffered some nerve damage from the chemotherapy and needs help walking,” says her oncologist, Dr. Susan Vear. “But she can be in pain from her chemotherapy shots one minute and quizzing you on when she can go back to dance and softball the next.”
Lauren is also the face of the 2015 “Give Hope” national fundraising campaign launched by Justice clothing stores. Her picture and thousand-watt smile was featured in more than 1,000 retail store locations across the nation, encouraging people to donate money to help fund childhood cancer research.
Lauren’s experience and strength have also inspired her parents, who have committed to helping other families going through a similar situation, and to finding ways to support research.
“Lauren and other kids with leukemia have a long battle ahead. Research is saving Lauren’s life, but more research is needed,” says John. “Our mission is to continue to provide Lauren with the best possible doctors and treatment to help her beat the leukemia while helping other families and children the way we have been helped.”
When asked about her dreams for the future, of all the things this little girl could wish for, Lauren says, “Raise money for Nationwide Children’s Hospital.”
But she’s not waiting for the future to come. She’s already started a “Bald is Beautiful” Challenge – asking people to shave their heads or keep their hair for a donation to research. Her hometown has held several “Team Lauren” fundraisers to help her family and others facing childhood cancers.
“My advice for kids who have cancer: Bald is Beautiful. Bald. Is. Beautiful.” Lauren says, her eyes disappearing into a smile as big as her heart, her hopes, her dreams.