Lauren McGlaughlin looks beautiful. Short, cropped hair in shades of brown and white framing her young face. Soulful brown eyes sparkling as she talks.
At 17, Lauren is a typical teenager in so many ways. When she finds out she’s about to have her picture taken, she reaches into her bag to grab her lip gloss for a quick touch-up.
But she’s not at school or at the pool with friends. She is in the oncology clinic waiting to undergo another round of chemo on a Friday morning at Riley Hospital for Children’s Outpatient Center.
Lauren is no stranger to this place. She’s been coming here for 2 ½ years, ever since she was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called synovial sarcoma, which attacks the body’s soft tissues.
It started with numbness in her foot, which led her podiatrist to refer her to a neurologist at IU North Hospital. That’s when imaging revealed a tumor at the base of her spine. The numbness in her foot spread up her leg and through her hip as the cancer squeezed off the blood vessels.
And yet Lauren continues to walk when she can. That tells you a little about who she is, but that’s only the beginning.
FAITH GUIDES HER
Lauren is the second-oldest of Calvin and Allyson McGlaughlin’s four children. She has an older brother and two younger sisters. The family lives in Muncie, Indiana, and until recently, Lauren attended nearby Cowan High School, where she was active in marching band and theater.
She loves shopping, makeup, movies and hanging out with her friends. She watches Netflix – “Gilmore Girls” is a current fave. And when it comes to music, she’s crazy for Ed Sheeran and The Fray.
But there is a steely resolve to this young lady, coupled with a deep faith that gives her peace. That resolve and that faith are what have helped her both fight and accept the deadly disease that threatens to rob her of her future.
“She is tough as nails,” says Allyson about her daughter. “Incredibly brave and strong.”
But “sweet and selfless” too. So sweet that the night before chemo, she was cleaning her room, still trying to help out at home.
Lauren had just turned 15 when she became ill. The diagnosis was so devastating her parents weren’t sure she would live to be 16.
Allyson, who later left her job as an occupational therapist, took it particularly hard in the early days.
“I grieved up front,” she explained. “I processed it poorly in the beginning, but maybe it’s what I needed to do to be able to pick myself up by my bootstraps now.”
As she has learned to cope, now it’s her husband who is taking it very hard. When one falters, the other steps in to break their fall.
After months of treatment, the family thought Lauren had won – at least this battle. But in time, the tumor near her spine began to grow again, and new masses appeared around her lungs.
In April of 2018, doctors told Lauren she had months to live. She could opt for more aggressive treatment, but the side effects were brutal, her mom said. Lauren told her doctors she would rather have a few good days than a lot of bad days.
She and her family were treated to a trip to Paris last summer by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Lauren doesn’t know how long she has – she has defied the doctors’ predictions – but she is making the most of every day. She is motivated to get things accomplished. Like her high school diploma.
“I really wanted to at least graduate high school before … if anything happened … I wanted to at least get that done.”
In the midst of often grueling treatment, she forged on with her schoolwork, determined to get an academic honors diploma. She worked so diligently that she graduated a year early and was among 19 Riley patients who walked in the annual Riley graduation this year.
“It was really amazing to see all of the other kids who graduated after going through such tough treatment,” Lauren said. “It’s very hard to be able to do your schoolwork when you’re feeling so bad. It was nice to be there and to see the doctors and the Women for Riley and all the other volunteers that came to support all of us.”
Riley oncologist April Rahrig and music therapist Caitlin Krater were among those on hand to cheer on Lauren and her peers.
Krater said it’s important to acknowledge how much kids can accomplish even in the face of a deadly, chronic illness.
“Lauren keeps getting knocked down by this disease over and over, and she comes back internally stronger and emotionally wiser,” Krater said. Finding meaning in the struggle, as Lauren has, “is the epitome of resilience.”
She’s a great example of truly engaging in life, Krater said, “that every minute you’re alive you’re living your life.”
“She embodies that. To be in her situation, sometimes just even getting out of the house can be a huge struggle, and then you walk into a world that isn’t very accessible anymore,” Krater said.
But Lauren has walked into that world with courage. She continues to not only live her life but thrive.
She hung out with her friends at the Delaware County Fair last week, enjoying a picnic in the grass and a lemon shake-up from her grandparents’ stand. She recently got her driver’s license, and she has been accepted to Ball State University, where she is scheduled to begin pre-med classes next month. Her goal is to be an oncologist.
She accepts that she might not reach that goal. What’s important to her is that she tries for as long as she is able.
“I want to make the most of every day. I want to enjoy time with friends and family. I want to go sky-diving and bungee-jumping.”
Asked if she had shared that last bit with her doctors, she laughed and hinted that they are in her corner.
“As long as you feel good, do what you love,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how long you have. You could be perfectly healthy and not see tomorrow.”
LIVING WITH GRACE
Lauren faces every day with a grace that belies her youth. She credits her “amazing support team” – parents, siblings and friends – who encourage her, challenge her and love her.
“I’m able to draw strength from these people and all the friends I’ve met while fighting cancer. I want to keep pushing and fighting like they are.”
Through it all, she says, God has been great.
“The more that happens, the more we’re able to see his face and draw closer to him and his word. Like mom said, whatever happens it will be fine because we’ll see each other again.”
Allyson said she has noticed that Lauren is even more open with her feelings lately.
“She tells people all the time, ‘you’re beautiful, I love you.’ She’ll tell random strangers kind things. She told me the other day, ‘I just want people to remember that I loved God and that his light shined through me.’ ”