Redefining Remission: Lauren Herrity’s Story
SASHA ROCKE Special to The SWT
Editor’s note: This article was submitted for publication by a Virginia Tech communications student.
In June 2007, Lauren Herrity was like any teenage girl beginning the adventure into adulthood. Unfortunately, her journey would be marked with an unexpected trial.
Near the end of her freshman year of high school, one of Herrity’s tonsils became very inflamed, prompting her doctors to remove it for safety reasons. The following week, her parents, Steve and Terry Herrity, received a long and troublesome phone call. What they initially believed to be a normal tonsillectomy turned out to be the discovery of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a type of cancer in which destructive cells form and grow uncontrollably in the lymphatic system, an integral part of the body’s immune system responsible for filtering out bacteria, viruses and other unwanted substances.
“I was in disbelief and denial because I really had no idea what was going on,” said Herrity, now 21 years old and a senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. “My dad became very angry, and my mom tried very hard to keep it together for me because I was so upset.”
She did not disclose the details of her condition to many people other than her family and a few close friends, and she relied heavily on these individuals for support.
“Some things just don’t seem as important when you go through something like this,” said her mother, Terry Herrity. “We learned to live with a lot less because we learned to put Lauren first.”
Soon after she learned about her condition, Herrity was admitted to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va. where she spent the remaining months of her summer vacation. Her doctors wanted to kill the cancer as soon as possible, so she underwent two total rounds of chemotherapy, each of which lasted for five days.
With the unconditional love and encouragement of her family, friends and dedicated medical team, she managed to turn her battle with cancer into an opportunity for progress. Since her diagnosis in 2007, she has devoted a great deal of time to bettering the lives of those affected by cancer and other critical conditions. She has made a difference through participation in a variety of organizations and unique projects, the first of which unfolded before she even left the hospital.
At 14 going on 15, Herrity was just young enough to be placed in the pediatric oncology award of Inova Fairfax. Most of the other patients in the ward were 3 to 7 years of age, which made her the eldest of the group. Despite the age gap, Herrity found it simple to connect with the other children.
“A couple of weeks into my diagnosis, I was really negative, but being with the kids and seeing how happy they were motivated me to be happy for their sake,” she said.
These children looked up to her, and with their help, she learned to look at her situation from a much different perspective.
“I felt guilty when I complained about things that didn’t matter,” she said. “I was only in there for two months, and some of them had been in the ward for years.”
During her second round of chemotherapy, a group of representatives from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to granting the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses, visited Herrity in the pediatric ward and explained to her that she had been selected to receive a wish. She was shocked, and initially didn’t know how to take the information.
“Usually, they save these wishes for children who are terminally ill, and I didn’t understand why I was getting one,” she said. “I just felt like there were other children who deserved one more than I did.”
Herrity did accept the wish, but not just for her own benefit. Instead of asking for a trip to the beach or to meet a celebrity, she wished for the walls of the children’s room in the pediatric oncology ward to be painted with bright colors and uplifting murals. She asked for carnival games, clowns and popcorn. Essentially, she asked for a day of pure happiness, one that would lift the spirits of the other children, and one that they would never forget.
As her family was financially equipped to handle her medical expenses, it was her intention to encourage the Make-A-Wish Foundation to use the $7,000 it would have cost to fund her wish to grant one to a child who was less fortunate.
“I was only in the hospital for a few months, and I had good insurance,” said Herrity. “I can’t even imagine how hard money must have been for some of the families who had a child that had been in there for years.”
This selfless gesture helped lift the spirits of many young cancer patients, but Herrity did not stop there. She entered remission in August 2007, and has gone to great lengths ever since to help others fight back just as she did.
Since coming to Virginia Tech in 2010, Herrity has held numerous leadership positions in several campus organizations geared toward raising awareness for life-threatening illnesses and instilling hope in individuals affected by them. She has committed a great deal of her time to Virginia Tech Relay for Life, an annual event sponsored by the American Cancer Society, to help benefit cancer research. She started as a team captain and committee member, and eventually earned a position on the executive board as director of survivor and caregiver engagement.
“Lauren brings the greatest work ethic to the executive board. Her energy, attitude and smile are infectious,” said Lauren Furtner, director of Greek outreach for Relay for Life. “She has always pushed me to work harder and is a talented leader and motivator. She brings an incredible amount of inspiration to the board, and she is everyone’s biggest supporter.”
Since she became involved in Relay for Life, Herrity and her family have raised almost $3,000 worth of donations for the ACS. The next Relay for Life celebration will take place on April 25, 2014 on the Virginia Tech Drillfield, and she hopes to raise even more money by then.
“We could not be more proud of her for all of her effort toward Relay,” said Terry. “She has become so heavily involved because she has such a passion for helping others. When I think about her progress over the past four years, it breaks my heart. She is amazing.”
In addition to her work for Relay, Herrity has been actively involved in V-THON Dance Marathon at Virginia Tech, an event sponsored by the Children’s Miracle Network to raise funds for children facing different cancers and illnesses, injuries and premature birth complications.
“The families we raise money for come to the event, and they are incredible. They make me cry every time,” she said.
In January 2012, Herrity became a member of Chi Omega, a Greek organization on Virginia Tech’s campus. Its members engage in philanthropic work each year to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“My membership in Chi Omega definitely makes the connection deeper,” she said. “Having been a ‘wish kid’ myself, I love the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and it’s amazing to see how much the sisters around the world do for them.”
Herrity’s service is not limited specifically to her college campus. When she goes home to Northern Virginia for summers and holiday breaks, she visits Inova Fairfax Hospital to spend time with children in the pediatric oncology ward and surprise them with care packages.
During summer 2012, she held an internship with the hospital’s Life with Cancer program, in which she planned events to benefit the children and their families. She is currently working toward a bachelor’s degree in communication with a concentration in public relations, and hopes to pair the lessons she has learned from her experience with cancer with her college education to ultimately pursue a career within the nonprofit sector.
If she had to give guidance to anyone facing the effects of cancer or a similar experience, she would encourage them to be open to the support of other people. “I wish that I had reached out to more cancer survivors my own age. Now that I have done that for other people, I see how much they have benefited from my advice,” she said. If she had to pick a consistent buzzword to define her battle with cancer, it would easily be “positivity.”
Herrity never gave up, and she has vowed to always give back. Five years later, she is proud to continue to call herself a survivor of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
“I came from a privileged background, and I was suddenly forced to face the real struggle of life. That’s the reason why I do what I do,” she said with a smile on her face. “I couldn’t tell you what I’d be doing today if I never had cancer. It has made me who I am, and I will always believe that.”