Young cancer survivor celebrates life

It’s a new school year for Lauren Hacker – and a particularly special one as she savors a healthy start to her sophomore year at Marian High School in Omaha.

The simple joys of seeing her friends every day, navigating noisy hallways between classes, swapping stories during lunch – all the trappings of a normal day in high school – are not lost on her or her family.

That’s because last year, Lauren – or Lolo to her friends – was recovering from a second life-or-death battle with cancer. Now in remission, she has more energy, her hair has grown back and she is working with a trainer to build up her muscles, said her mother, LesLee Hacker.

Not surprisingly, the experience has changed the faith and outlook on life of Lauren, her family and friends.

"I don’t think our family would have been defined by our faith before Lauren got diagnosed," LesLee said. "I feel we were going through the motions with our faith, but we’d never been challenged in it before.

"As of Dec. 12, 2012, that changed on a dime," she said.

That was the day Lauren was diagnosed with acute myelocytic leukemia (AML). Having worked almost 16 years in that very hospital’s pathology department, LesLee knew just how serious things were.

And over the following months and years the family turned not just to doctors, but to their faith – trusting in God and the power of prayer.

Right now, Lauren is enjoying feeling better.

"This year is way different," she said. Last year, she was very tired and easily fatigued climbing the stairs at school, but refused to use the school’s elevator. This year, it’s less challenging, she said.

And, she said, she likes all her teachers, but it’s too early to tell what her favorite subject will be.

Diagnosed while in fifth grade at St. Margaret Mary School in Omaha, Lauren fought and won a months-long battle with the often fatal disease, LesLee said.

In the spring of 2016, Lauren relapsed as the cancer returned, this time on the skin of her left leg – a rare and very serious form called leukemia cutis.

The usual treatment would be a bone marrow transplant, which can leave a person very sick for up to two years, LesLee said. "But all Lauren wanted to do was to start high school."

So with their doctor, the Hackers researched and found a case where, instead of a transplant, the patient underwent surgery and four months of chemotherapy.

"So we made a decision to go with this longshot," LesLee said. "As of today, we think it’s been a good choice, but there’s still no guarantee it won’t come back."

The family’s faith, meanwhile, has grown beyond weekly attendance at Mass and going to Catholic school, Leslee said.

After quitting her job as a teacher at St. Robert Bellarmine School in Omaha, LesLee mainly lived at the hospital while her husband, Phil, and their son, Jonathan, tried to carry on at work, school and home, along with frequent hospital visits.

With the help of Father James Weeder, then associate pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish, she learned different ways to pray the rosary, she said. He encouraged her faith and trust with words from Scripture, "Be still and know that I am God."

The family prayed to Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast is Dec. 12, the day of Lauren’s diagnosis. They prayed to Servant of God Father Edward J. Flanagan, and Father Val Peter, former executive director of Boys Town, brought a cross owned by Father Flanagan with which to bless Lauren.

"Lauren needed me to have faith," LesLee said. "It was a challenge, and a lot of it meant giving up control."

That also was a challenge for Phil, a retired Air Force major who now works as a civilian at Offutt Air Force Base, who said he was used to being a "self-made individual."

"I’ve come to realize that we can’t change things on our own," he said. "There are things beyond our control, and we just have to trust. I had many nights lying awake pondering different outcomes, and had to reconcile that if things didn’t go well, I would have to accept it."

In some ways, Lauren’s faith was stronger than her parents’. "She never asked, why me? She never questioned that she was going to be OK," LesLee said.

During her hospitalizations, Lauren had many visitors, including Archbishop George J. Lucas. He blessed her, administered the sacrament of confirmation in her hospital room, and gave her a rosary blessed by the pope. Knowing her love of giraffes, he also gave her a pair of carved wooden giraffes he had received from a person in Kenya.

Through it all, Lauren’s friends rose to the occasion, helping keep her spirits up – through hospital room visits, gifts, even a mini party in her room after their eighth-grade graduation dance.

A gathering of classmates outside Lauren’s hospital room window making snow angels, singing and holding signs urging her on gained media attention Jan. 30, 2013. Again on July 20 of last year, about 260 classmates, parents and parishioners gathered outside her hospital room window to show their support.

And, thanks to an online campaign, she even got a visit from music superstar Taylor Swift who was in Omaha for a concert.

But Lauren doesn’t want a lot of attention now, LesLee said, and is just happy to be back to school and doing what average high school kids do.

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