Continuing the fight: A mother’s story of loss and hope

By KATHRYN ACREE AND MADOLINE MARKHAM

Laura and Cecilia Crandall

Laura and Cecilia Crandall on Laura's wedding day in 2009. Photo courtesy Angela Karen.

While raising her daughter Laura, Cecelia Crandall often advised her to “put on your big girl panties and deal with it.” Laura began to share the same advice with friends years later and bought her mom a magnet bearing the words. Today when Cecilia Crandall looks at the magnet on her refrigerator, she thinks, “Boy, did she ever deal with it.”

Laura began a fight against ovarian cancer at age 24. Although she lost her battle after only 15 months, Crandall and her husband, Jim, continue the fight today. They honor Laura’s wishes to educate women about early detection of ovarian cancer and to battle against this disease through the Laura Crandall Brown Ovarian Cancer Foundation.

While Cecilia and her other daughter, Emma, are more quiet and reserved, Laura was small but full of spunk like her paternal grandmother, Katherine, earning her the nickname “Little Katherine.” “I know that the spunk helped her tremendously during her illness,” Crandall said. “She was determined to fight as much as her body and mind would let her.”

Despite their differences in personality, Crandall and her daughter shared a close
relationship. They enjoyed mother-daughter talks while relaxing at the beach as well as spending time together shopping, eating at their favorite restaurants and spending a day at the spa. Increasingly independent as she entered adulthood, Laura didn’t call everyday, but she never hesitated to phone her mother for solace and advice when she needed her.

Laura’s story

Laura’s battle began during the whirlwind of planning her wedding to her fiancé, Walter, scheduled for November 2009. After developing flu-like symptions, fever and discomfort led to a trip to the ER where she lived in Auburn.  Several tests later, a tumor was discovered on her right ovary, and she had it surgically removed. Laura immediately felt better and went on with wedding preparations, but the family soon learned the tumor was malignant.

“There were a lot of unknowns at that point,” said Crandall. “The wedding was so close. The decision was made to continue on as planned and that Laura would start treatment after she and Walter married.”

Laura became ill again on her honeymoon. She was diagnosed with small cell nueroendocrine carcinoma in the ovary area. After four rounds of chemotherapy in Auburn, a CT scan showed that the cancer had spread. Tumors were in the lining of Laura’s lungs, abdomen and pelvis. The family connected with a doctor at MD Anderson in Houston, Texas, to begin clinical trials and investigational therapies.

“We would go to Houston for 10 days and come home for seven days,” said Crandall. “Friends and family were so supportive by holding yard sales and other fundraisers to help with travel expenses.”

While in Houston together, Laura and Cecilia returned to a bedtime ritual from Laura’s childhood: reading books. Growing up, Laura would pick a book for her mom to read before bed and then give her mom a makeover as she read. “She’d brush my hair and style it and put some makeup on my face, all the while listening to the story and correcting me if I skipped or changed something in the book,” Crandall said. “It became our special time to relax and spend time together before bed.”

By the summer, Laura began to feel stronger and wanted to be a part of helping other women battling cancer. Photographer Angela Karen shot her for the cover of the 2010 Picture of Health calendar. The calendar advocated ovarian cancer awareness with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Norma Livingston Ovarian Cancer Foundation.

“Our families and friends continued to offer us such wonderful support as we went back and forth to Houston,” said Crandall. “Her treatments continued, and we prayed for positive news that the clinical trials would have an effect. Laura stayed focused on healing and visited friends when she was able to have time at home.”

By the time of Laura and Walter’s first anniversary in November, the outlook was not as hoped. Laura continued to post about her treatments on her Caring Bridge website, and when she was unable to, her family stepped in to give friends news of her progress.

Around the first of December, Cecilia arrived in Auburn for what was supposed to be a day of fun. Not feeling well, Laura visited the doctor and discovered she needed to be admitted to the hospital for a blood transfusion. Realizing she was receiving more blood than she’d ever had before, Laura began to cry and invited her mother to lie down next to her in bed. The two hugged and cried together as Laura spoke of her fears and her desire to live through the holidays. “You are the best mother on earth,” Laura told her mother, “and I’ve been so fortunate to have had you as my mom.”  Crandall now treasures those words more than ever.

Laura passed away on December 14, 2009. Her father, Jim, shared the news through the Caring Bridge site:  “Her courageous battle with cancer has ended, and we know she was victorious in that battle. We cannot begin to express our deepest love and thanks for all who have been there with her through this fight. As Laura tried new therapies, she also said if they did not help her she hoped that what was learned from her struggles would help others.  She is now holding the Hand of God.  Psalm 73: 23-26.”

Continuing the fight
In that same month of her death, Laura’s grade school alma mater, Our Lady of Sorrows School in Homewood, held a Cakes for Cancer fundraiser to help the family with travel expenses. It was that donation after Laura’s death that became the seed of the Laura Crandall Brown Ovarian Cancer Foundation.

A counselor at Berry Middle School as well as Laura’s aunt and godmother, Rachel Sizemore knew now serves as the foundation’s secretary and treasurer. “Through Laura I have witnessed the power and love that ordinary people have when confronted with extraordinary challenges,” said Sizemore. “It is my goal to honor Laura by working with the foundation to further heighten the awareness of ovarian cancer and the urgent need to develop tests for early detection.”

One in 69 women will face ovarian cancer in their lifetime.  In 2009, more than 21,000 were diagnosed, and more than 14,000 women died from this silent killer. Early detection leads to early treatment and better outcomes. “The foundation’s primary purpose is finding an early detection diagnostic test,” said Crandall. “Such a test needs so desperately to be available to women.” About nine out of ten women treated for early ovarian cancer will live longer than five years after the cancer is found. Some large studies are in progress to learn how best to find ovarian cancer in its earliest stage.

During a pelvic exam the doctor will feel the woman’s organs to check their size and shape, but most ovarian tumors are hard to find early because the ovaries are deep within the body and the doctor cannot feel them easily. While the Pap test helps to find cervical cancer early, it cannot detect ovarian cancer at any stage.

The Laura Crandall Brown Ovarian Cancer Foundation encourages seeing a doctor if you have symptoms: swelling of the stomach (abdomen), pelvic pressure or stomach pain, trouble eating or feeling full quickly, having to urinate often or feeling like you have to go right away.

How to help in the fight
The Laura Crandall Brown Ovarian Cancer Foundation welcomes the community to their fundraisers this month. The foundation’s Young Advisory Board is sponsoring the 2nd Annual Pirates and Ninjas vs. Ovarian Cancer event at The Bottletree May 13, 8-11 p.m. Music for the evening will be provided by The Vegabonds and DJ Rafa. Tickets are available at www.thinkoflaura.org/YABbirmingham/pirates-ninjas. Renaissance Consignment is helping host a fundraiser for the 2012 Picture of Health Calendar Girl Search campaign by participating in Making Scents of Cancer. Until May 25, you can donate or purchase new or slightly used perfumes at Renaissance to benefit the foundation.

For additional ways to volunteer or to learn about hosting your own event, visit www.thinkoflaura.org.

“The Foundation’s motto is ‘the chance to fight it, to beat it, to live,’” said Crandall. “We want so much to help other women and their families struggling with this disease.”

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