Her smiles conceal the battle ahead.
In photographs that chronicle her fight against cancer, Lauren Carter smiles on Sept. 2, the day doctors at Carolinas Medical Center biopsied a tennis-ball-size lump on her neck and ultimately found Hodgkin lymphoma.
Weeks later, she smiles as a stylist shaves her head before chemotherapy, and on that first day of treatment, she smiles holding a poem and quilt from a sorority sister and cheerleading teammate at Queens University of Charlotte.
Then on Feb. 2, she smiles for days – “probably in my sleep” – when her oncologist called to say she was cancer-free.
On Saturday, Carter's probably reserved her biggest smile as she and 300 other traditional Queens undergraduates are set to graduate in a kick-off to the commencement season in the Charlotte region and around the country.
“I think I'm going to feel very accomplished,” said Carter, 23, who during her cancer fight continued to cheer and finished student teaching requirements at Myers Park Traditional Elementary School to get her education degree and become a teacher. “After what I've gone through my senior year, I feel I can do anything I put my mind to.”
It took all of Queens to get her to this point.
Growing up, she and her family moved around for her father, Walter's, work. They ended up in Cincinnati, where Lauren went to high school and was a cheerleader.
She'd never heard of Queens when one of its admissions officers came to her school one day.
“I was just struggling on where to go to college,” Carter said. “I think I needed the one-on-one attention of a smaller school.”
The admissions officer happened to be Queens' assistant cheerleading coach, and lured Carter and her parents to Charlotte to at least give it a look.
“It was love at first sight,” she said.
She's cheered Queens men's and women's basketball games since her freshman year, and competed with her team against other cheerleading squads.
She's lived on-campus all four years, joined Alpha Delta Pi, and made the dean's list each semester. Her junior year she “went on a huge health kick,” focusing on eating healthy foods, mostly fruits and vegetables, and running and training with weights daily, sometimes twice a day.
“It gave me a different energy level,” Carter said. “My complexion was better. I was getting better sleep and paying better attention in class.”
Her world in shock
She had no reason to expect anything less of her senior year.
Classes began Aug. 21. The campus took Sept. 3 off for Labor Day. The Friday before, she was at a friend's house and suddenly felt a numb, tingly sensation in her neck. She felt a large lump poking out, and woke her suitemate. They went on a midnight run for Benadryl, thinking it might be an allergic reaction from a bug bite.
The next morning, the lump was still there. Her suitemate drove her to an Urgent Care clinic. A doctor sent her to the emergency room at CMC for a CT scan.
She called her parents, Walter and Sharon Carter, who were spending the long Labor Day weekend in West Virginia, about four hours from Charlotte.
At 4 that afternoon, a doctor told Lauren the results were in, but her parents wanted to know them first. The Carters were told, then Lauren with her parents on a speaker phone.
“They said they were 90 percent sure I had lymphoma,” Lauren said. “My whole world went into shock. I'd really never had a drink. I never smoked. I was exercising and eating right. I wasn't in any pain.”
She'd only heard about the cancer when a Queens student who'd graduated a year earlier was diagnosed with the same blood disease.
Doctors admitted her to the hospital and scheduled a biopsy.
She posted her diagnosis on Facebook and that she was determined “to fight like a diva.” In no time, her support system emerged.
Cassie Eaker, a Queens friend and another graduate Saturday from Mooresville, rushed to the hospital with her mother. They stayed with her, asked the doctors questions, and kept notes for Lauren's parents, who had started for Charlotte.
‘We Love Lauren'
The biopsy only proved what they already knew.
“I was in a bed with IVs hooked up when my parents walked in. We hugged for several minutes,” she said. “The doctor, my oncologist, was very calm, very positive.
“He said the success rate for treatment was high.”
Everyone assumed Lauren would leave school and go back to Ohio for treatments. She only had to give them that look – “like ‘you're crazy if you think I'm going back to Cincinnati. I'm finishing my senior year.'.”
Instead, she'd go to Levine Cancer Institute at CMC for eight chemo treatments over 16 weeks.
She and her parents met with Queens President Pamela Davies, Dean of Students John Downey and Lauren's advisers. They arranged for her to live in a suite by herself in a just-opened residence hall – so it could be kept sterile to protect her immune system as she went through treatments.
Her parents settled into a rented condo at SouthPark to focus on Lauren.
And the Queens campus instantly rallied around one of their own.
Her cheerleading team and the women's volleyball team honored her and the other lymphoma-diagnosed student at a lymphoma-awareness volleyball match.
In late September, about 70 Queens students put on “Fight Like a Diva” T-shirts and trekked the 3-mile “Light the Night” walk, another awareness for lymphoma.
Lauren walked it, too, but struggled to complete the 3 miles five days after her first chemo treatment. They cheered her at the finish line, “like I'd just finished a marathon,” she said. “I felt so loved and supported. I knew then: ‘I can get through this.'.”
On campus, the senior class committee chose the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society as their class project. They had “We Love Lauren” buttons made up with purple ribbons and sold them for $1.
Soon, she saw strangers with the buttons on their book bags.
When she had her head shaved, three male friends from Ohio drove from their schools and joined her. Heidi Foote, a sorority sister and nursing student from Concord, N.H., went with her, too. She had 11 inches cut off to donate to Locks of Love, the nonprofit that provides wigs for young cancer patients.
“I didn't want Lauren to do it alone,” said Foote, who'd always kept her hair halfway down her back.
Classmates offered to share notes when she couldn't make class because of treatments. Friends, including Foote, sat with her during chemo. So did Director of Athletics Jeannie King and cheerleading coach Lori Townsend.
Her parents were so moved they've started the Lauren Nicole Carter Class of 2013 scholarship, which will help Queens students with medical emergencies stay in school.
“We've been so moved by the outreach in Charlotte: Lauren's friends, people we didn't know offering us a place to stay, the fantastic Levine Cancer Institute and, of course, Queens – what a special place,” her father Walter said. “It was a tough year for Lauren but a special time for our family. We are a stronger family for it.”
Foote, too, was inspired by Lauren's tenacity.
“We all think we have it tough, but there's always someone who has it worse,” she said. “She remained so positive, even through chemo. She didn't miss a thing her senior year.”
Lauren made all A's both semesters. She wants to teach elementary school in Charlotte – her new adopted hometown.
‘Footloose and cancer-free'
Her hair was “spiky” and she had a bandage on her chest when she began student teaching in early January at Myers Park Traditional Elementary.
She had to explain her illness to her first-graders “so they wouldn't be scared.”
She read them a story she wrote. Chemo, the main character, was a superhero.
Finally, on Feb. 1, she had a PET scan and CT scan. The next morning, Lauren's cellphone rang at 8.
“Who in the world is calling me on a Saturday morning?” she muttered to herself. She didn't recognize the number and rolled back over and fell back to sleep.
Later that morning, she listened to the message. It was from her oncologist. She wrote on Facebook: “Just received a call this morning. I'm footloose and cancer-free. Happiest day ever.”
Saturday, perhaps, will be her second happiest. Forty relatives, family friends, high school friends and many of their parents are flying in for the graduation.
It'd probably be only immediate family had Lauren not been through her battle. “They're all coming to help us celebrate this life event,” Walter Carter said.
They won't be able to miss his daughter.
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