CANCER WARRIOR OF THE MONTH
“And she loved a little girl very, very much… even more than she loved herself.”
When a woman becomes a mother, her first emotions are indescribably euphoric; a newborn brings the purest joy and gratitude imaginable. Maternal instincts are embodied and the mother instantly assumes the responsibility of caring for this child, protecting & teaching, and envisioning the greatest dreams for their future. The dire and frightening challenges of cancer are not part of this perfect scenario, yet a colorectal cancer diagnosis can unexpectedly present a mother with one of her greatest fears of all: that she may not live long enough to “be here” for her child.
The Gloria Borges WunderGlo Foundation is humbled to share a heroic young mother’s life, diagnosis, and truth as we honor our June Cancer Warrior of the Month: Laurel Hillerson-Spear.
Laurel grew up in beautiful Santa Cruz, California. She was fit, always exercised, socially drank, and never smoked; a lifelong vegetarian, she had no family history of colorectal cancer. Working in non-profit social justice programs for over a decade, she married her long-time partner, Steve, in 2008 and they welcomed their beautiful daughter, Fiona in 2010. Laurel was excited for the next chapter in her life.
Symptoms consisting of pelvic pain began in March 2014, nothing that indicated a problem with her colon. When weeks of pain didn’t subside, she was given an Ob-Gyn appointment. A visit to urgent care resulted in no information for the “mystery pain”. After pleading with the gynecological team, an ultrasound still showed no visible reason for her pain: no cysts or problems in her uterus. Speculating some sort of infection, she was given antibiotics and sent on her way.
Two weeks passed as pain intensified; she demanded next level testing. She was in so much pain, yet no one knew what to do and continued to ignore the severity of her cries for help. Finally, in May, 2014, after fighting with insurance approval, a CT revealed seven tumors on her liver, consistent with colorectal cancer; a colonoscopy and PET scan identified a large tumor, multiple cancerous distant lymph nodes, and her grim prognosis of Stage IV rectal cancer was terminal.
“On May 29, 2014, one week after graduating from my Master’s program, I was diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer at age 32. My daughter, Fiona was only three. I told the oncologist that I couldn’t have cancer because my daughter needed me. Due to the amount of metastasis, doctors have little hope for a cure. I will leave behind my loving partner, Steve, and my beautiful young daughter, Fiona.” – Laurel Hillerson-Spear
In 3-years since her diagnosis, Laurel has completed nearly 60 rounds of chemotherapy. After liver resection and rectal surgery, she completed 16-rounds of Folfox and Avastin, but found that she could not tolerate the side effects. In July-2015, she started Xeloda + Avastin, but found Xeloda intolerable. Within 2-months she switched to a weekly bolus of 5FU & Avastin and her disease remained stable until April 2016,when cancerous lymph nodes were found in her chest and peritoneum. She attempted 2-rounds of Irinotecan that triggered a severe reaction, even at significant dose reduction. In June 2016, Laurel started Erbitux but also had progression, and after completing 3-rounds of Lonsurf, the cancer progressed significantly: her lungs went from six small tumors to innumerable tumors, some of which had quadrupled in size, with three new tumors in her liver. Laurel restarted Folfox + Avastin and although January 2017 scans showed liver stability, there was lung progression. Laurel had now exhausted all traditional options.In February 2017, she started a clinical trial at City of Hope. On May 1st, devastating news from post-trial scans revealed 50% growth everywhere and more tumors in the lungs. Her cancer was growing at an alarming rate; she would not be continuing this trial. Never giving up, Laurel searched for options with second and third opinions. However, during this off-treatment period, lung tumors had now doubled in size, covering 2/3 of her lung, just 3 weeks after her May 1st scan.
On May 16th, she formed another plan: 6-weeks radiation with systemic treatment (Xeloda) in efforts to shrink a dangerous trachea tumor and re-inflate her collapsed lung. Laurel hurdled insurance obstacles, started radiation, and fights for more time.
Throughout her cancer experience, Laurel keeps Fiona unaware of the harshness in this world, while still being open and honest about her cancer. Laurel answers Fiona’s questions – age appropriately, and has taken her to medical appointments and chemo infusions.
Cancer forced Laurel to reevaluate her priorities. Before treatment, work and advancing her career took priority. She now looks at every experience with Fiona as a chance to “create a memory to savor” after she passes. Laurel has made her a birthday present for every birthday, ages 7 to 21; she wants Fiona to always know how much she loves her.
Laurel keeps her “mother’s purpose” in full view: teaching, guiding, and loving her daughter in every lasting way. She founded the Non-Profit: Fiona’s Family House (www.fionasfamilyhouse.org) as tribute and legacy to her young daughter. Fiona’s Family House foresees a day when young adults in Santa Cruz County are empowered to live with their cancer diagnosis with financial assistance and ability to be active in the most meaningful parts of their lives, without the worry about medical bills/supportive therapies. In their first 6-months, Fiona’s Family House raised over $25,000 for young adults with cancer in Santa Cruz.
Laurel continues her advocacy work, talking publicly and doing everything possible to encourage people to listen to their bodies and fight for their basic medical rights in the face of disbelief and insurance barriers.
Laurel wrote and performed her heartfelt truths to share with the world in her moving soliloquy as part of The YoniVerse Monologues. Dedicated to Fiona, Laurel displays the wisdom, bravery, and eternal love, that will forever inspire and remind her daughter about life’s greatest lessons from her devoted mother. https://youtu.be/7EcQQNliaKc
“I cherish every moment that I have here on this earth with my beautiful family.
…- And that is why on any given day you will find me singing with my daughter, playing games, dancing at jazzercise, and eating delicious donuts…Because that is how I choose to savor the life that I have now.” – Laurel-Hillerson Spear
Be inspired by the beautiful and impactful spirit of Laurel Hillerson-Spear. The Gloria Borges WunderGlo Foundation works towards the cure for colon cancer and it is imperative that we succeed. We educate, bring hope, and lend support to patients/families, while always striving to fund “the cure” that ends this disease. WunderGlo will honor Laurel with a Cancer Warrior Award at our 6th Annual Gala in September.
Cancer, Your Time Is Up!