Teen proton alum Lauren Foster and her family returned to Jacksonville to reconnect and offer encouragement
By Theresa Edwards Makrush
A sweet smile lit up 14-year-old proton alum Lauren Foster's face as she talked about her plans for the future. "Going through treatment made me want to go into nursing. Knowing that you're helping somebody get better makes you feel quite happy," she said softly.
Her parents' smiles beamed brightly as they added, "She's taking all the subjects that will hopefully get her into university to do nursing," said mom Emma Allsop. While dad Steve Foster remarked, "Lauren choosing this path is unusual since she does not like the sight of blood, has a fear of needles and doesn't like to see medical procedures even on TV. Her choice shows just how determined she is and has the strength of direction for nursing."
It's the same strength and determination Lauren has displayed during the last four years as she has dealt with treatment for a rare tumor called rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of tumor that occurs in soft tissue. Because of her age and the location of the tumor on the muscle at the back of her palate, she was not a candidate for surgery, and her physicians in the United Kingdom recommended her for proton therapy combined with chemotherapy.
On March 17, four years to the day when they first landed in America for Lauren's proton therapy, Lauren, her parents and her sister, Holly, returned to UF Health Proton Therapy Institute for a follow-up visit with Dr. Danny Indelicato. "We really looked forward to thanking the staff for what they've done for Lauren," said her dad Steve. Lauren added, "I'm looking forward to experiencing everything in America being well."
It was a much different experience than when they were here originally. The fear of the unknown, never having been in the United States before, and being away from their support system of friends and family for cancer treatment was overwhelming at first.
“The culture of things. Knowing more about the way of life would have set our minds more at ease,” said Emma. After getting over the uncertainty of driving on the right side of the road, adjusting to the way Americans eat and discovering how friendly all the people were, the family began to settle in.
Initial fears about the medical facilities and treatment were relieved once they arrived. At Wolfson Children’s Hospital they were pleasantly surprised to have a private room. This allowed the family to stay with Lauren in comfort as she had procedures to implant fiducial markers to aid in positioning for daily proton therapy and a port for her chemotherapy. At the Institute, the family went on an orientation tour prior to Lauren’s first treatment. She was able to see, touch and feel what it was like to lie on the treatment table, allowing her to overcome her anxiety and have her treatment without daily anesthesia.
Lauren said that proton therapy was not painful. “You don’t feel anything. It’s not as scary as you think it is” she said. “After you’ve done it once, you can do it again,” Lauren said.
They also wanted to encourage others who are facing a similar journey. “No one wants this to happen to their child. But that’s the good that can come out of it. You can share and pass along your experience to help others,” said Steve. Emma agreed. “We would love to have met up with people who were two or three years out. So many questions you want to ask and some you don’t want to ask the doctors,” she said.
The family was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of everyone, even people who were complete strangers. Steve told the story of how the entire staff of the hotel where they stayed during the nine-and-a-half-week treatment became like family. As an example, every morning they had breakfast in the hotel dining room and the staff noticed how much the youngest member of the family, Holly, loved to make her own waffles every day. At the end of their stay, the staff presented the gift of an industrial waffle maker to the family. Later as the family prepared to leave for the airport, the entire hotel staff gathered in the lobby to wish them well, cheering and applauding.
An act of kindness in the middle of a big-box store remains a vivid memory for Steve. While Lauren was being treated, she was quite sick and it was a struggle to do many outside activities. One day the family was shopping for some necessities and Lauren became fatigued. Steve found a seat in the middle of the store for Lauren to rest. A woman who was shopping noticed Lauren and asked about her condition. After learning from Steve what was happening, the woman asked if she could say a prayer for Lauren. “I said yes thinking that she would go home and say a prayer later. But she got down on her knee in the store and held Lauren’s hand and said a prayer right there. People just continued shopping and walked by without a second thought.” The fact that the woman cared enough to stop and show her concern was surprising enough. Even more surprising was that people didn’t stop and stare and make a spectacle of what was happening.
They are making new memories on their return trip. Reconnecting with the people and places in Jacksonville they remember fondly and charting new territory as they visit Orlando and the many theme parks. And each family member will get their favorite taste of America while they’re here: Olive Garden for Emma, Chick-fil-a for Steve and Holly and Denny’s for Lauren.
Today, Lauren is cancer-free. She fills her days with school, sports like gymnastics, trampoline, and badminton, and watching her favorite TV shows The Big Bang Theory and Charmed, which she and her family came to know and love while in America.