Lizzy Lawton probably knows more medical terminology than the average adult. She can give herself shots, remove her own stitches and carry on a technical conversation with nurses like a pro.
To her, it comes with the territory. The soft-spoken 13-year-old Resurrection Christian 7th grader has successfully battled Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that primarily affects children.
That equates to 17 rounds of chemotherapy during two years, hundreds of hours commuting to Denver hospitals with her mom for treatments and thousands of worry-filled and tense minutes during surgeries, procedures and uncertain recovery periods.
It all started when Lizzy was 9 years old and told her mom in 2010 that she had a pain in her hip.
Doctors initially diagnosed the discomfort as “growing pains.” But when the fevers started months later, Lizzy’s mom, Meredith Lawton, knew it was something more serious and advocated for blood work and additional X-rays. Then, in April, 2011, things came into focus.
Lizzy was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer on her hip that had spread to her shoulder, knees and even spots on her spine. When doctor’s broke the news to her, they treated her like a grown up, even as she cradled a stuffed bunny rabbit for comfort. It hit her hard, and the previously strong athlete who competed in triathlons and would constantly romp around outside like a kid should, ripped off the rabbit’s tail in fear.
She had a 7 percent chace at survival, doctors said. And that’s when she went under the covers to hide, if just for a moment.
She says calmly that she didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of what she was going through — what 10-year-old could? Even her mom says Lizzy never complained or asked “why me?”
Summer, 2011 drew on with continued treks to the hospitals in Denver, a week of chemotherapy every month, and in the fall, a bone marrow transplant on Oct. 31. It was a Halloween she won’t ever forget — the hospital staff recreated scenes from Star Wars in the lobby while she was wheeled in for her biggest treatment to date, scared, though a little more at ease, she remembers.
After a stay in a recovery house and a month of radiation, Lizzy went into remission for 11 months. Most of 2012 went “normally,” though Meredith, a former preschool teacher, will be the first to say getting life back to normal was anything but possible.
And then, in December, 2012, Lizzy told her mom a phrase she feared: “my shoulder hurts.”
The whole process started over.
As Meredith’s husband, Mike Vasa, worked to keep the other three children’s lives as routine as possible with ski trips and jaunts to the mountains, Meredith and Lizzy spent the early days of 2013 in the hospital, fighting the deadly disease for a second time. Only now, doctors were saying the chance of survival was even lower, and they were already talking about quality of life for her final days.
They clearly underestimated Lizzy.
She pulled herself back for a second time and just last month had her chemotherapy port removed, allowing her for the first time all year to be a normal kid. When she’s not doing homework she’s doing cheer. Or swimming. Or playing volleyball. Or as her mom joked, having drama-filled talks with friends.
She’s a 13-year-old girl, after all. And once again, she is cancer free.
“I can’t even describe how much she has missed out on,” Meredith says from the family’s home, walls lined with outdoor photographs and paintings — fitting for the active family. Though she hasn’t missed a grade in school, she has missed out on the birthday parties, holidays and the little things most kids get to do.
But amid the struggle emerged an understanding that there are groups throughout the state and country working to replace at least a little bit of the camaraderie and care-free living that comes with being a kid. From caregivers in the hospital to camp counselors at summer camps, the support networks often go unacknowledged, Meredith says. That is, until they’re needed.
Halloween for Lizzy last week couldn’t have been more different from Oct. 31 two years ago — she dressed up with her sisters Anneslee and Abby and her brother Jordan as ninja turtles. The group spent Friday doing what kids everywhere did — divvying up their mounds of candy.
More importantly, Meredith says, they were being kids. Normal and happy kids.
“Little things that you take for granted every day become a very big deal,” Meredith says after answering Lizzy’s questions about the rules to the board game, Clue, while the family dog is sprawled on the couch. “We like to say that we make the days count.”