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Lauren’s Brain Tumor Journey

Even without the brain tumor, Lauren Beck isn’t a typical 13-year-old girl.

By Joey Kennedy

The brain tumor is there, yes, attached to the thalamus in the left ventricle of her brain. The tumor has, of course, altered her young life forever. The headaches and nausea and balance issues are physical symptoms. Living every day with a time bomb in her head is a fact she cannot unknow.

It may kill her, and Lauren knows that, too.

Still, if anyone expects Lauren to be morose, or defeatist, or beaten down, they’ve got the wrong kid.

“I really just don’t worry about it,” Lauren says. “I try not to worry about things because I know that will probably make my mental health worse. I really just put everything in the Lord’s hands.”

Lauren’s mantra, and long before the brain tumor was discovered this May, is three words: “Positive. Positive. Positive.”

Lauren is sincere. I know this, because Lauren is my great niece on my wife’s side of the family. We’ve known her since she was born, and Veronica and I have been amazed at how she’s grown to be this mysterious teenager unlike so many teens we’ve known.

Lauren’s mom, Leanne Blackmon, is Veronica’s closest relative. We adore her. Leanne says Veronica is almost like her second mother. (Leanne’s mom, Veronica’s sister, died nearly three years ago.)

Lauren and her family live in Rainbow City, just outside of Gadsden. She has easy access to the experts at Children’s of Alabama and UAB, where she’s taking her treatments for her tumor. She’s already successfully endured six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the tumor. She’s undergoing an even stronger round of chemo now, with the goal to reduce the tumor’s size so that it can be surgically removed. Her treatments are working, the tumor is shrinking.

Tests indicate the cancer isn’t spreading. Still, the stage-three tumor deep in her brain is malignant and considered aggressive.

In many ways, Lauren is a typical teen girl: She loves to shop and is attached to her phone. She likes to go to the movies and out to eat with her friends and family. Her favorite food is turkey sandwiches from Panera Bread. She listens to indie rock and especially 1990s alternative music.

“I’m really an average 13-year-old, small-town” girl, Lauren says.

Except: Her favorite book is Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a novel about racism in the Great Depression. “It’s one of those books that makes you cry,” Lauren says. “But it also makes you realize how cruel people can be.”

Her favorite movie is The Outsiders, based on S.E. Hinton’s classic novel. “It shows that we are all the same,” Lauren says. “Despite social classes, what side of town you live in, how you speak, dress, and live. It teaches a great lesson to all.”

And other than her mom Leanne, father Steve Beck, and stepdad Danny Blackmon, her hero is the actress Danai Gurira. “She’s so strong on screen, but even stronger off screen,” says Lauren. “She works for women’s rights, works for education, and works for charities for women around the world.”

Small-town girl? Maybe, but one with a world-view curiosity.

And while Lauren’s faith is important to her, it’s not a blind faith.

“I’ve been around many people who are racists or who do not support (marriage equality),” Lauren says. “We should love all people. And that’s something the Bible talks about all the time.”

And then: “What makes me different? I’ve been blessed with a gift to understand and talk with other people in a compassionate way other 13-year-olds can’t,” Lauren says. “I guess that’s it. I think more about the future. Yes, I do think about myself, but I especially think FOR myself. Thinking critically. That’s another thing I’ve been blessed with.”

As Lauren goes through her brain tumor journey, she has great family support, on both her mom’s and dad’s sides of the family.

Lauren and her family were on a family trip to Disney World when her brain tumor was discovered. After one ride on the first day, she suffered an excruciating headache. After going to the Hall of Presidents to cool down, Lauren became nauseated and threw up.

The family returned to their room and decided to come home the next day. But Lauren continued to worsen.

“She started crying and holding her head,” her mom Leanne says. “She said, ‘You’re going to have to take me to the emergency room.’”

Lauren went to a hospital nearby, where a CAT scan showed a mass on her brain. She was transferred to Orlando’s Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, where an MRI clearly showed the tumor. Her father drove from Alabama to be there.

Before the doctor came in, Leanne was shown the tumor on a computer wheeled in by a nurse.

“Right then I felt like…I felt like I could see Lauren’s life flashing in front of my eyes,” Leanne says. “All your hopes and dreams go away. You have no hope at all. Danny told me to sit down.

“I was scared. Fearful. All kinds of emotions were running through me. I didn’t know what to do. I was lost.”

Lauren and Leanne were flown from Orlando to Children’s of Alabama on UAB’s medical transport jet. Treatment started quickly.

What keeps Leanne level, she says, is Lauren.

“It’s always in the back of my head,” Leanne says. “I think, ‘What if this doesn’t work or that doesn’t work. Are we going to have to have funeral arrangements?’”

But Leanne, too, is a thinker with strong faith. She, too, believes positive attitudes can make differences.

“A good attitude through sickness helps so much,” Leanne says. “We’re all destined to die one day. But it’s how we go through life, day by day, that matters. You can go through life being a total butt, or you can be positive.

“Yes, you have this brain tumor. Yes, you’re not like other kids. But you live your life.”

And that’s exactly what Lauren is doing.

“I really do look at the future like that,” Lauren says. “Most people, when they get something that is life threatening, they don’t look at the future. They look at the now. But you always have to think about the future. Set goals for yourself. If you set goals for yourself, you’re a more positive person.”

Lauren has just started the eighth grade, but her goals include making great grades, figuring out how to get into medical school, and becoming a pediatric oncologist.

“Never take life for granted,” Lauren says. “I do think about the now, but I think about what my life can be, and what it will be.

“I always look on the bright side,” says the atypical teen. “I just prayed, and said ‘God, you’re going to get me through this.’ I was very positive about it, and I still am every day.” •

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