A Fort Worth woman is inspiring her family, friends, doctor, even strangers with her incredible fight against a rare cancer.
"I've always wondered whether the most amazing people get these challenging diseases or if something happens to them once they get it, that they become the most amazing people," said Cook Children's Medical Center pediatric hematologist/oncologist Kenneth Heym about his patient Lauren Skillman. "But with Lauren, since I've known her from the beginning, just facing everything with bravery, and courage and laughter."
Laughter comes easily to the 20-year-old Skilllman. She's just plain fun, squeezing every happy moment out of life. Her optimism is her weapon against the cancer that threatens her life.
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"It's weird. I don't know. I guess i just don't really think about the seriousness. I think that's what it is. I just don't choose to think about it," Skillman said.
Cancer, though, seems to be her family's constant companion. Her mom Melanie Wilson is a two-time cancer survivor. Her step dad Dana Wilson survived head and neck cancer. Her father Steve Skillman recently lost both his parents to cancer. And Lauren is now dealing with cancer for a third time since 2008.
At 18, she was diagnosed with a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumor. The tumor at the back of her neck was treated with radiation and surgery. The cancer returned in 2009, spreading to the right side of her neck. Again, radiation and surgery worked.
But this spring as Lauren enjoyed her sophomore year at Texas State University in San Marcos, more serious problems developed.
"I couldn't breathe at all. I remember I was on campus walking to class and literally could not even walk a foot without having to drop down and sit down. And I was like something is so wrong," said Skillman.
An X-ray at the campus health clinic sent her packing for home.
"It's in my lungs," said Skillman. "It turns out one of the masses is squeezing right where I breathe. And that's why I haven't been able to breathe."
"And unfortunately, this is the type of tumor that can have a late recurrence where years can go by and the patient's doing fine. Then all the sudden, the disease rears its ugly head again," said Dr. Heym. "Our fight is harder now than it was at the beginning, but again we have a lot more things at our disposal to help fight this."
Chemotherapy was Heym's first choice, but Lauren feared the side effects.
"And so when he told me I was gonna lose my hair, it just completely broke me down," she recalled.
"It was her decision and it was hard as a parent to let her decide something that could save her life. And at first, she said absolutely not. I will not do it," said her mother Melanie Wilson.
As Lauren laid in her bed in ICU, a simple message from her boyfriend changed her course.
"Because you know, being this age, you struggle with he's not gonna like me when my hairs out and stuff. And he sent me a text message that said, he said, how beautiful I am, how the only thing he was worried about was me and my smile. Right then and there, I was like, 'okay, do this thing,'" said Skillman.
Lauren's had one round of chemotherapy and the results have amazed everyone.
"She came a lot further than any of us expected," said her doctor. "There was to be blunt, a chance she was not going to leave the hospital alive. And not only did she leave the hospital, but she did it a lot quicker than any of us thought and she's in so much better shape right now than she was when she came in a couple of weeks ago. You can't describe it because it was that dramatic. You can't fully understand just how sick she was."
Her family also marvels at Lauren's bravery and her deep down belief that everything will be fine.
"Her mom was talking to her and saying 'you understand this is a terminal disease?'" said step dad Dana Wilson.
"And I looked at Lauren and she said, 'Mom 'I've got this. Don't worry I'm gonna be fine.' And she said, 'I'm not gonna die. I know it. I believe it. I've got this covered so you don't need to worry.' And as she said those words, I believed her. And I still do," said Melanie Wilson.
"I know for a fact, every thing's gonna be fine." Lauren said. "I know in my heart. I know the outcome. That's why I'm not worried about it. I already know what's gonna happen, so I remember just looking at her, and I was like 'I got this.'"
Lauren's positive attitude inspired best friend to start Lala's Soldiers, a Facebook page 25-hundred strong and growing. Those who know the college student and those who don't leave messages of encouragement.
And if they're not leaving posts, they're calling or coming by. For example, country singer Lyle Lovett learned of Lauren through mutual friends and now checks on her often. Former American Idol contestant Tim Halperin serenaded her during a stop last week at Cook Children's.
"It's a scary situation," said her dad Steve Skillman. "It's a nightmare, but the outpouring is truly unreal of what you see from other people. And that wakes you up to realize, people are good."
Lauren who describes herself as a middle child who often struggles with self-esteem issues is overwhelmed with the all the attention and support.
"I know! I know," she said. "It's weird because I really have not stopped smiling because so many amazing things keep happening. And this is the weirdest part, every time throughout this, this time, where I've gotten really down, something happens immediately that will spark me up. It's the weirdest thing."
"Lauren's greatest gift is the ability to get past fearful moments as quickly as possible and remember there is something worth living for, and then she finds that positive place to be, that sunshine spot," said her step dad.
Dana Wilson writes a blog about Lauren's journey with cancer. He refers to her as Princess Lauren and writes about the sunshine warriors protecting her.
"Science call tell us what they believe, and science will say her prognosis is lousy, but her oncologist says 'I'm a man of science and I'm a man of faith. My science will tell me there's no reason she should have improved breathing but it has,'" said Wilson. "So science can take us so far, but it's faith and belief and love and hope and joy that fills in the rest of the gaps."
"I hope I'm an officer in that army (Lala's Soldiers) but yeah, she's doing all the work," said Dr. Heym "I just sit back and watch her and it's amazing to see how she's handling this. She just wants to get back to what she's doing, fight this, get it done. So she can get back to her life and she's on her way."
And as she gets on with life, Lauren is doing it without the long, brown hair she cherished. Just a little more week after her first round of chemotherapy, Lauren's head is shaved and she's wearing wigs.
That huge smile, though, is still there and so is her strong resolve to beat cancer yet again.
"I guess, being positive in times where it's almost impossible to," she said. "Cause I was thinking about it and, I was like, as of now, I'm not in control of anything, absolutely anything. I'm not in control, but I am in control of what I do about this situation and how I feel and my actions, I can control that."