A bike ride with her son is more than exercise or fun for Lauren Day. These days it’s a symbol of triumph over cancer that nearly killed her at a time when life was already difficult.
In January 2014, the holidays had just passed and the then-27-year-old mother of then-4-year-old Landon was optimistic about the promise of the new year.
The previous year had been difficult for Day as she faced the challenges of being a newly divorced single parent. She had married soon after graduating from Columbus North High School, then became a certified patient care assistant as well as a mother.
“I was determined to get my life back together after the divorce and I think I was making a lot of progress until everything in my world just stopped when I was told I had leukemia,” Day said.
Story continues below gallery
She noticed a lump in her groin area, but Day said she felt fine, had no signs or symptoms of illness and thought she had possibly pulled a muscle because she had been working out at the gym a lot.
Still thinking the lump in her groin was just a hernia, Day had outpatient surgery to remove the lump on a Thursday and returned home the same day. By Friday she didn’t feel well and by Saturday she was running a fever. Her mother Bethany Greathouse stopped by to check on her and found Day passed out on the floor.
“I knew something was wrong but I did not think it was cancer. Except for a case of flu in December, Lauren had not been sick and overall seemed healthy. We took her back to the emergency room and routine blood tests showed something was wrong in her blood,” said Greathouse, a longtime nurse in the oncology ward at Columbus Regional Hospital.
I have come so far. At first, I could barely stand. Now I can ride a bike with my son. My hair is growing back and I am getting closer to normal. I am so grateful that I did not give up. If you fight cancer to the end you can win. You have to decide what you are fighting for. I knew I had a son to fight for and I fought hard. It is very important to me that my son knows his mother fought hard. —Lauren Day
By Monday, Lauren’s family physician began a series of tests, including a bone marrow biopsy. On Feb. 10, 2015, Lauren was informed she had acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes abnormal myeloblasts (a type of white blood cell), red blood cells or platelets. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if not treated, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Greathouse understood the seriousness of the diagnosis. Depending on the age and condition of the patient and the virility of strain of AML, a patient can die within just a few weeks of diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society.
The leukemia had already affected 28 percent of Day’s healthy blood cells.
Day was moved immediately from Columbus Regional to the IU Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis to begin an aggressive form of chemotherapy.
“When we arrived at IU, we were told my doctor was the same doctor that treated Colts coach Chuck Pagano, so I felt a little better since that had gone well, but they didn’t sugarcoat anything,” Day said.
“The doctor said one of three things would happen in the chemotherapy: It could go well and I would go into remission; or my body would resist the chemo and it wouldn’t work and the AML would advance; or the chemo itself could cause death,” she added.
Day had worked for 18 months as a patient care assistant at Our Hospice of South Central Indiana and had seen what cancer could do to a patient.
“I had never seen myself as a patient and I felt very scared,” she said.
The first phase of Day’s treatment involved chemotherapy to kill the leukemia cells already in her blood. She was told the chemo was going to be so strong that she would have to remain in the hospital for several weeks during treatments. And if she survived the first phase and it was successful in destroying the leukemia cells, she would move into the second phase, which would involve a bone marrow transplant.
“I’ve seen many patients go through chemo but I have never seen any treatment harder than what Lauren went through. I wasn’t with her as a nurse. I was there more as a coach to try to keep her spirits up,” Day’s mother said.
Day was scheduled to receive the chemo treatments for over a month, but after 12 days tests showed the treatments were not as effective as needed to destroy the leukemia cells, so the intensity of the treatments had to be increased.
“I was so sick and there was so much pain, there were days when I really would not have minded if I had just slipped away. I kept a picture of my son by the bed. I think that is the only reason I did not just give up. I had to keep fighting for him,” Day said.
After nearly a month-and-a-half, the doctors determined enough of the leukemia cells were dead to proceed with the next phase of her treatment. A 41-year-old male had anonymously agreed to donate his bone marrow for the procedure.
Day was sent home from the hospital to be with her family for eight days of rest before beginning the bone marrow transplant. When she returned Day knew her treatment would take another three-and-a-half weeks in the hospital, but did not know how hard it was going to be, she said.
“It was awful. It was very, very much worse. I was hooked up to a central line. When they put the stuff in, I could feel it burning through my body. It actually burned the lining of my throat and my esophagus. Even my hands were burnt. I had reactions of rashes and scars and I was so week, my parents had to feed me. Now, it is so awesome to look back on all of that. I am so glad that I didn’t give up,” Day said.
Eighteen months later, Day is free of the leukemia that nearly took her life. She lives with her parents while she continues to rebuild her strength.
“I have come so far. At first, I could barely stand. Now I can ride a bike with my son. My hair is growing back and I am getting closer to normal. I am so grateful that I did not give up. If you fight cancer to the end you can win. You have to decide what you are fighting for. I knew I had a son to fight for and I fought hard. It is very important to me that my son knows his mother fought hard,” Day said.
Day knows that AML frequently returns. She said her favorite color is now orange, which is the color of the ribbon that symbolizes the fight against leukemia. A tattoo she got during her recovery includes Feb. 10, 2015, the date she was told she had AML, and the Bible verse Proverbs 31:25 that reads, “She is clothed with strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future.”
“I did that because I must remember that cancer is a part of me now and I must always be ready to fight again,” Day said.
TYPE OF CANCER: acute myeloid leukemia
DIAGNOSED: Feb. 10, 2015
OCCUPATION: Works at The Eye Place
FAMILY: Parents, Michael and Bethany Greathouse; brother, Tyler; sister, Alyssa; son, Landon Michael Day.
ADVICE: “Decide what you are fighting for than fight. You can give up but if you fight to the end, you can win.”