In Lauren’s Words

Lauren runningPhoto courtesy of
Laurel Wassner

LAUREN’S SPEECH TO THE AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY

Lauren inspired so many people throughout her life, and her ability to motivate athletes in particular was incredible. Even during the hardest, darkest days in her battle with cancer, she found ways to reach out to and support athletes – her NYU and Chelsea Piers swimmers, her friends and family, strangers working out at Palladium, you name it. One special avenue she found for connecting with and inspiring athletes was through the American Cancer Society (ACS). One of the fundraising arms of the ACS is DetermiNation, a team of athletes who raise funds for cancer research through runs, swims, triathlons, and so on. This was a perfect fit for Lauren, who had completely rocked countless runs, swims, and triathlons. During her fight with cancer, she began giving speeches to the DetermiNation athletes before their events, including the NYC Marathon, NYC Triathlon, and NYC Half-Marathon, among others. The speech below was her message to the DetermiNation runners before the 2011 NYC Half-Marathon and it is quintessential Lauren: honest, funny, motivating, and deeply inspiring.

March 19, 2011

Thank you, the American Cancer Society, for allowing me to be part of such an awesome event. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks now and seeing you all out in the audience reminds me what I’ve been looking forward to.

I know you all have a big race on Sunday and we are here for the pre-party. I’ve always loved the half-marathon distance- it is long enough for you to get in the distance zone, but ends before you lose control of all bodily functions, like what happened to me in the marathon. You can safely walk away from this race and feel good- what a treat!

I am here tonight to talk a little bit about my experience with cancer, something we all have, which is why you’ve spent countless hours training and fundraising for such an amazing cause. Unfortunately, we all have ties to cancer whether we like it or not. My personal story begins in April of 2004, the day before I was supposed to run the Boston Marathon. My Dad was diagnosed with leukemia on this day and I will never forget the feeling of hearing those words. You obviously don’t know my Dad, but in true fashion he didn’t want me to miss the marathon and insisted that I run as planned. I ran as fast as I could that day and didn’t complain about the pain I felt all over my body. He continued to fight this awful disease with more dignity and composure than I can describe. He lost his fight about one year ago, which happened to be one year after my diagnosis.

The next time you are tempted to get pissed off about something out of your control—pause. Delay your panic. You may be surprised at the good that reveals itself in the interim.”

It was March of 2009, 2 years after racing Ironman Lake Placid, 1 year after Escape from Alcatraz and years of accumulating full and half marathons under my belt. It was also the close to an exceptional year professionally- the NYU Women’s Swimming Team finished an all time high of second place at our conference meet and I had more swimmers qualify for Nationals than ever before. I had been selected our conference coach of the year, and all this couldn’t compare to my excitement of being 17 weeks closer to becoming a first-time mom. My husband and I were headed to Lake Tahoe to celebrate with our family and things took a turn for the worse. I was experiencing pain in my shoulder, like you would a side cramp during a race, but this one wouldn’t go away and nothing could offer me relief. I found myself at the ER in Lake Tahoe where they are accustomed to broken bones, not cancer. The ER doctor gave me two choices: head back to NYC or head to Stanford Medical Center for immediate care. She told me I had lesions all over my liver, but didn’t give me any further information.

My husband, Mike, and I decided to head back to NYC to connect with my OBGYN. I was in excrutiating pain all of the way home and thankfully my husband is as close to a saint as any human could be, and he made sure I arrived there with as little drama as possible. My OBGYN was quick to arrive and the series of tests began. I was in and out of procedures and the doctors diagnosed me with the unthinkable: cancer. They immediately did a DNC since a body filled with cancer cannot support a fetus. This was emotionally the worst procedure I had to go through, but I still had no idea what all this would ultimately mean for my future. The last procedure they did was a colonoscopy, which was what identified the source of the cancer- colon. So, here I am, a 32 year old, otherwise healthy woman with stage 4 metastatic colon cancer to the liver. This couldn’t be real.

This story is getting to be really depressing, which is not what I intended for this speech. I felt like I had to give you the scoop so you can understand why I’m more than a little bit crazy.

So now what? I’m a 34 year old woman with the same diagnosis, but now the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes in my abdomen as well as my lungs. I have 2 years of chemo under my belt, a hepatic pump and a colon resection. What a catch!

Those are the crappy things that I have. There are many good things that I have and that is really what I want to share with all of you. So, here is a top 10 list of good things I have in my life.

1. A stronger, deeper, more loving relationship with my husband than I ever thought possible. He is my everything, and I would not be here without his love, sacrifice and belief in me.

2. A support network made up of family, friends and acquaintances that is more extensive than one can imagine. People willing to sit with me at chemo, make me dinner, watch movies with me, listen to me talk, go for walks, assist me in retail therapy…and the list goes on.

3. A job that gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. 26 swimmers who depend on me to whip them into the best shape of their lives. Being a coach has given me a sense of purpose at a time when finding things to look forward to in life can be really depressing. These young women are so much more than athletes to me- they are proof that the future of our country is really not heading down the toilet- trust me, there is hope!

4. A sense of humor. When you have cancer you have two choices—laugh or cry. I do my fair share of crying, but a day doesn’t go by that I don’t find something to make me laugh. We’ve been able to find the humor in just about everything, from bowel movements, hair loss, impromptu vomiting and becoming addicted to drugs.

Live in the moment, don’t wish it away. The burn, the lactic acid, these are good things that mean you are alive and doing something you love.”

5. My body. Trust me, things aren’t like they used to be, but I can still move. The cancer has taken a lot from me, but I manage to work out most days, to feel my heart beat, my lungs work and my muscles burn. There is nothing like the endorphins you can get from a good workout.

6. Perspective. As a New Yorker, we see a lot of people who are just miserable for the sake of being miserable. I refuse to let this mindset enter my brain. People are pissed because the train is crowded or because their dog won’t pee right outside of their building (god forbid they actually walk the dog). I want to shake these people and tell them “I have stage 4 cancer and life isn’t that bad!” So next time you are tempted to follow suit and get pissed off about something out of your control—pause. Delay your panic. You may be surprised at the good that reveals itself in the interim.

7. Celebrity gossip—for some reason it comforts me to know who Jennifer Aniston’s last date was and why Katie Cruise dresses Suri in high heels. Does it really matter to me, no, but it sure does a good job of taking my mind off of real issues going on around me. So for the time being keep my subscription to People Magazine current because I need to know!

8. Country music. This is kind of weird, a New Yorker listening to country music, but I do have to say that I am originally from Oregon where it really is normal. One of my swimmers once told me that they reason I like country is because I yearn for a simpler life. I think she is right on the money. Songs that tell stories of turning bad situations around and not taking crap from anyone- how can I not like this?

9. The ability to accept help. It is human nature to reject help, to assume that we can figure stuff out on our own. The truth is that we can’t do it all by ourselves and there are times that we do need help and that is not a sign of weakness. I have struggled with this on a daily basis since being diagnosed. This was one of the first lessons I learned since being diagnosed with cancer. People want to help, and it feels good for them to help, and the bottom line is that I need help, more than I can explain.

10. Lastly, cancer has taught me that there are always things to look forward to. This is what gives us the ability to fight when we need to. We have weddings, vacations, plans with friends to look forward to. Some things are big and some things are small and without having cancer, may have been dismissed or taken for granted. Mike and I have made it our mission to enjoy the little, good things in life. There are lots of them if you just allow yourself to slow down and notice them. These little things bring me the most joy and every night as I lay down for bed and feel Mike beside me I thank my lucky stars for bringing him into my life. He is a little thing, a big thing, my everything.

I want to close by giving you some advice on your race on Sunday. First, look for the NYU Women’s Swimming Team at miles 1/7. We will be cheering for you and will not let you quit! Second, enjoy every step of the race, including the pre race jitters and post race celebration. Live in the moment, don’t wish it away. The burn, the lactic acid, these are good things that mean you are alive and doing something you love. There are people out there who don’t have the ability to do what you all are doing. Embrace it, right-left-right-left, look around you, take a deep breath and remember who or what inspired you to get this far.

Enjoy it and Good Luck, Runners!