Meet the Face of Justice's Give Hope Campaign
Sporting her favorite outfit (jean shorts, sporty kicks, a funky T-shirt and a stack of bracelets embossed with the words "Team Lauren" and "Stay Strong #11") and toting her best pal-"Puppy" the stuffed dog-Lauren Cunningham enters the room with a bright smile and a firm handshake. She's polite-quick with a "thank you" and a compliment-and funny, wasting no time before cracking a joke. The 10-year-old Lima resident's got spunk and is, by first impression alone, an incredible kid.
But Lauren's also a tremendously brave kid, one who-despite a daily battle since being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia last spring-is doing what she can to speak out for all kids with cancer. In April, Lauren served as the face of tween favorite Justice's national Give Hope campaign, which raised more than $500,000 for The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital. The mini fashionista stopped by the Capital Style office this summer to share her story, advocate for leukemia research and talk trends.
Tell me about your Justice experience. How awesome was that?
Very awesome! They gave me a gift card, and I got to go shopping. And then, when we got to the headquarters, everyone was standing around clapping for me.
What did you get to see at the Tween Brands HQ?
I met different people who do different jobs, and one lady showed me two outfits I got to choose from, and then she let me take both. This shirt was one of them. I designed a shirt, too, and they're going to send it to me.
What's on the shirt?
It has a character I made up; it's a mouse who has cancer.
Do you think you'll work in fashion?
I want to be a babysitter. I like kids. Sometimes they can be annoying, but I like them.
Can you tell me a bit about your treatment?
It's not how I planned to spend my year. At all. I didn't plan to go down (to Columbus) every month. I don't think any of us did.
You made a video diary for the hospital, which is featured online. What do you hope to achieve by sharing your story?
Spread more awareness so more people will try to help kids. And adults, but mostly kids!
Your physician, Dr. Vear, said you're getting back into dance soon.
I do tap, ballet and jazz, and I'm going to do hip-hop this year, too.
What's your favorite?
Tap, because you get to make a lot of noise.
What's your favorite way to spend a Saturday?
Going out to the park and playing with Buddy, my puppy. He's a yorkiepoo, and my little sister has a shih-poo. I tried to get Dad to take Buddy here! I've had him four weeks. Now that I'm in maintenance, I'm allowed to have a dog.
What's your favorite sport?
I like to play where the coach puts me, but I like to score goals, because everyone goes, "Yay, Lauren!" and the other team goes "Ugh." I'm an honorary member of the University of Findlay soccer team, and I get to do stuff with them over the summer. And I was a Blue Jackets hero. I met Boone Jenner.
What's your favorite subject at school?
Recess … and reading. I'm reading a book right now about two girls who swapped bodies, called, "If I Were You" [by Leslie Margolis]. I also like the "Junie B. Jones" books.
Favorite TV shows and movies?
I like Mary-Kate and Ashley movies. And I like "Full House."
So, who are some of your role models?
That girl Talia [Castellano]; she got cancer at six and then died. But I really like her because she never wore wigs. Also, my parents. And I also like Kristina Webb; she's an artist, and I like art. Drawing, painting ... ? All of it. I was actually working on a drawing on my way down here, of me and my sister as cartoon characters.
What's it like to be considered a role model yourself?
What do you think makes a good role model?
Being kind and brave no matter what.
So, what's really cool for 10-year-olds these days?
Technology. Social media.
Do you have a favorite app?
My top-used app is Instagram.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I really just want to meet Taylor Swift.
I knew she would come up.
And Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill and Darius Rucker.
Alright: What's the one thing you want people to know about your experience?
What I post on Facebook-I usually post "I'm happy!" and about having fun-I hardly ever feel like that.
What would help?
Donate. Donate, because Nationwide helped me, but other families can't pay for it. Nationwide doesn't care if families can pay for it-they just care if they can help this child.
Lauren's Road to Recovery
After weeks spent battling what she and her parents were told was a viral sinus infection, Lauren Cunningham awoke on May 14, 2014, to find her left eye had turned inward; her smile drooped just so. Her parents, John and Mariah, hurried her to the local hospital and were told, after tests and a MRI, that it was leukemia. Lauren was rushed to Columbus in an ambulance and immediately began treatment at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
"We got to Columbus by 9 p.m.," John says. "By 1 a.m., she was on the ventilator."
Not everyone has such a rough start, says Lauren's physician, Dr. Susan Vear. For patients with leukemia, the bone marrow-the "factory" where the body makes blood cells-grows too many white blood cells while also hindering those cells from maturing. "They're not remembering to turn off the growing process or grow up," Vear says. "They're like teenagers running wild."
Some patients have just a few of these teenage cells, which Vear calls "blasts." But, she adds, "About three or four times a year, we have a patient whose cells have gotten so out of control." Five thousand to 10,000 white blood cells is normal; when she arrived at the hospital, Lauren's body was producing nearly 700,000.
This increase in white blood cells puts a patient at risk for stroke, which is how Lauren ended up in the ICU for several days. "She was receiving treatment (for leukemia) before she (was awake and) knew anything was wrong," Vear notes.
"Mariah and John were really awesome about being upfront with her about what her leukemia was and why she was in the ICU," she adds. "That really helped her deal with her diagnosis from the start."
Lauren's had complications not all patients have, and she's been a trooper, Vear says. She makes jokes through her therapy and even decorated the eye patch she wore at the start of her treatment.
Lauren is nearing remission; she'll undergo treatment at Nationwide through the fall of 2016. For now, she's focused on getting better, gearing up for dance practice and soccer games, helping her little sister with softball and getting her small-but-mighty voice heard on behalf of other cancer patients.
"Lauren and her parents have been so gracious in speaking out for what we need in leukemia research," Vear says. "That's not always easy to do when also caring for a sick child and battling this disease."