Cancer loss promotes Charlotte student to start awareness campaign

On July 2, 2008, Lauren Wilson’s life took an unexpected turn for the worse. Her close friend Ellie Potvin, 6, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

Lauren, then 10 years old, said she never thought she would have to experience the harsh realities of life so early.

“Never in my life did I imagine that I would have a first-hand experience with cancer that would change my life forever,” Lauren said in a recent interview.

Through that experience, she gained a spirit of courage that led to her accomplish years of work benefiting not only Ellie, but cancer patients throughout the community.

Ellie’s cancer was called rhabdomyosarcoma. According to the American Cancer Society’s website, www.cancer.org, it can develop from connective tissues in the body, such as muscles, fat, bones, blood vessels or the linings of joints. It is made up of cells that normally develop into skeletal muscles, but it can start anywhere in the body. The patient can experience bone pain, constant cough, weakness and weight loss.

Since Ellie’s cancer was at stage 4 when it was found, it was uncertain where it had begun. The first tumor to be found in her body was spotted in her pelvis; it rapidly spread, engulfing her legs and a lung.

Lauren was a close friend of the Potvin family and an even closer friend to Ellie. Knowing her close friend was suffering so cruelly, Lauren wanted to be there for Ellie every step of the way: chemotherapy, radiation, blood transfusions and multiple other cancer treatments. She wanted to do everything in her power to help Ellie, but her friend’s treatment remained at a standstill.

For two agonizing years, Lauren saw Ellie suffering and dealing with her approaching death. For Lauren, feeling powerless to help her friend became exhausting.

“At only 10 years old, I had to grow up very fast and witness and deal with a lot of suffering,” Lauren said.

She found solace in Ellie’s optimism, she said. “Although she lost her hair and her ability to walk, and eventually her ability to breathe, the one thing she never lost was her smile.”

Ellie and Lauren continued to have sleepovers and go ice skating, bowling and shopping. Ellie wanted only to be treated like a person who wasn’t sick, Lauren said. She wanted to have fun and continue to enjoy life. Her lively spirit greatly encouraged Lauren to gain strength and faith to keep moving forward, Lauren said.

Ellie died June 23, 2010. After that, Lauren was determined to make sure that when Ellie peered down at her from Heaven, she would be proud of the good that Lauren was contributing.

Lauren said she saw a TV commercial for the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life fundraising walk. Local chapters of the society, which raises money for patients who are sick, sponsor the local 12-hour cancer walks each year.

So in Ellie’s memory, Lauren created a team for her local walk, naming it “Ellie’s Entourage.” The annual walk starts at 6 p.m. one evening and ends at 6 a.m. the next day. Games and activities are set up all night, creating a fun atmosphere for anyone who participates.

Lauren, now 16, attends Ardrey Kell High School. Over the past three years, Ellie’s Entourage has raised $12,000 for the American Cancer Society. She went a step further and joined the committee that organizes the walk, working as part of the Youth Engagement committee. In that role, she visits local schools, starts fundraisers and helps make kids aware of cancer.

She also volunteers in the oncology unit at the Levine Children’s Hospital. Helping kids suffering from cancer, she said, puts a smile on her face.

Lauren said she believes one is never too young to make a difference. “It makes me so happy and feel so good to know that I’m impacting these kids lives,” she said.

This story was written as a part of the Charlotte Observer’s high school journalism Explorer Post.