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Laurie’s Leukemia Summer

We recently asked this question on Facebook: As a survivor, what single piece of advice would you give to someone just diagnosed with cancer?

“Enjoy the ride.”

"Huh?"

That was one survivor’s answer. That’s right. Enjoy the ride.

Laurie BerardGet her on the phone, though, and soon you start believing. Laurie Berard is off and running with entertaining stories of her busy life after cancer.

She gushes about her 10-acre farm in the Kansas Flint Hills where the orchard is bursting with apples (she and her friends will make wine from them).Her three boys are a magnet for their friends, having several treehouses, ziplines and even a homemade roller coaster (the place is called The Funny Farm). Her oldest is off to Kansas State, her beloved alma mater, whose football season is off to a winning start. A terrific boyfriend has completed the deal. Life is pretty good.

But life was also good until one June morning seven years ago when Laurie stepped out of the shower after tennis and noticed a fist-size blood blister on the side of her rib cage. She went to the doctor, got a blood test, and, though she was a bit worried, went home to help her kids (ages 7, 9 and 11) celebrate their last day of school for the year.

‘Will I live?’

With her sons at KU MedThen came the phone call. The oncologist needed her to come in immediately to talk about the result. And just when they thought things couldn’t get any worse, it turned out there would not be a reconciliation with her husband. He was filing for divorce.In fact, the papers were already in the mail. “I’m careful never to say things can’t get any worse,” Laurie says, “because they really can!”

Before she could sit down, she heard, “You have leukemia.” A biopsy involving a needle-like probe (only thicker) showed her bone marrow had dried up. The fatigue she’d been feeling wasn’t just dealing with three kids, a separation and a busy career. She was essentially dying.

“Will I live?” she asked.

“Maybe,” the doctor said, “if you make it through the first 30 days.”

Treatment

Laurie’s life flipped upside down. She was immediately admitted to the University of Kansas Medical Center and began the first of three rounds of chemo. It wasn’t going to be easy, but she decided it wasn’t going to be any harder than it needed to be.

Chemo quickly started to fix her blood. Though the powerful medicine made her sick before she could get better, her native curiosity overshadowed the symptoms. The former television journalist reveled in the learning that cancer had dumped in her lap.

“The chemicals they give you are horrible, but the process is all so interesting. I asked tons of questions about everything. What is that? What is it going to do to me? How will it do that? I was just really intrigued.”

Good Fortune

She was also lucky, doctors told her, that her disease was treatable. If she’d contracted it 10 years earlier, it likely would have been fatal. Laurie credits God, her family and her friends with helping her live to tell this story. Her mother, Marge, was with her day and night for the majority of this journey.

Although her leukemia was treatable, it wasn’t easy. At one point after the scariest part of her treatment was supposedly over, Laurie contracted an infection and went downhill fast. “It quickly got to the point people were yelling in my ear, ‘Laurie, you have to breathe. We’ve done all we can. This is up to you!’

I finally had an out-of-body moment where I went, ‘What? Are they talking to me? This sounds serious. I’d better pull myself together.’ I forced myself to start breathing, and we got through it. Those were a rough couple hours, but most of it was pretty smooth sailing.”

Smooth, sure, but enjoy the ride?

Well, says Laurie, yeah. “It doesn’t have to be a horrifying experience.”

In the Hospital

Music Therapy! “My treatment required several long stays at the KU Med, and I always tried to make the most of the situation I was in. I had HGTV, really awesome nurses, and a full menu to order from every meal. There was no cooking and no cleaning, and my boys were on their best behavior.

I don’t mean to make it sound like a vacation, but when you’re a single mom with three boys going through a divorce and you’re exhausted, so it sort of felt like one.”

She was the life of her wing and the youngest at 38. Nurses hung out in her room on breaks. They donated their purple latex gloves to Laurie’s friends, who inflated them into “balloons” with which they decorated her walls (purple is Kansas State’s color). Someone bought her a “KU Med” tee shirt, which she edited to say “KlUb Med.” She was done with treatment at the end of the summer and was released the day before her sons started school.

She immediately hit the volleyball court with her friends and soon was back to work in sales. Although her marriage never rebounded, life was good again for Laurie.

Let’s face it. Laurie is exceptionally optimistic. Can everyone smile through adversity like this? What about a newly diagnosed person who is less naturally upbeat?

Advice 

“I think so,” she says. “I’d recommend learning about other survivor’s experiences and how they got through it. That’s why I’m sharing my story now. Eliminate fear. If you can, try to be optimistic. Or don’t even just try, just truly be optimistic that everything will be okay. Although cancer will change your life forever, it will not define you. Rather, it will change how you feel about things you thought were significant but you now realize are no longer even worthy of concern. Like your hair. As a natural blonde, my identity used to be linked to my hair. Now I’m just glad to have hair after being bald.”

What else is less significant now?

“Everything, everything. Cancer truly changes your perspective on life. Whenever something bothers you, remind yourself that this, too, shall pass.”

And if you are chosen to go on a ride with cancer, remember Laurie’s story. See if you might be able, in some small way, even for a moment, as hard as it may seem, to enjoy it.

•••

Everyone’s experience is different. This strategy worked for Laurie, how do you cope with life’s biggest challenges?

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@elenasonnino

My dream as a cancer survivor is that each of us have a lifetime to achieve our dreams. It is time to #finishthefight
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Laura Pontecorvo Tomlin

I just had my 19th “More Birthday.” Each one has been step by step reached and appreciated. To all my family, friends that are family, thank you for walking step by step with me.
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