It’s sunset and pink light casts a glow on the young woman’s translucent skin.
She looks like any other 30-something having fun on a beautiful fall evening. She has her sky-blue cruiser bike with her along with two devoted gents: her boyfriend of eight years and their German shepherd, Kane.
Lauren Race is remarkably upbeat. She’s smiling and laughing. You can’t tell what a high price she has paid for childhood summers spent outdoors at the pool, getting burnt to a crisp, or the teen years when she used tanning beds religiously so she could sport a bronze sheen at volleyball games, homecoming and prom.
When Lauren was only 24, her grandmother insisted she see a doctor about a large, oozing mole on the top of her head. She’d had it for years, all the way back to fifth or sixth grade. It was annoying. She’d part her blond hair to hide the black mole, but she figured it was a harmless inconvenience.
Lauren saw a dermatologist in Colorado Springs. He took a sample for a biopsy. The results were supposed to come back in about two weeks. The doctor’s parting words haunted her: “I’ll pray for you.”
Just six days later, Lauren learned she had melanoma and was referred to another doctor for surgery. She wasn’t too worried, especially when that surgeon said that he’d been able to remove all the cancer and that there was only a small sign of it in a lymph node.
“He didn’t sound concerned at all. He told me I was good to go,” Lauren recalled.
A life-saving second opinion
Coincidentally, a friend of Lauren’s from high school was working as a receptionist in the melanoma clinic at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. She encouraged Lauren to see one of the specialists there. Since Coloradans are exposed to so much sun at high elevations and melanoma is relatively common here, the melanoma experts at the hospital are some of the best in the world.
Thanks to her friend, Lauren was able to get help quickly.
“She was my angel on Earth. I got in within a week. Thank God. I’ve known a handful of patients who have waited to get in and unfortunately didn’t make it.”
Lauren saw Dr. Karl Lewis. After scans and a thorough exam, Lewis gave Lauren sad, but critical news. Her cancer was not under control. She was not “good to go.” Lewis encouraged Lauren to start immediately on additional treatments.
“He saved my life,” she said.
The treatments to fend off Lauren’s cancer have been brutal at times, but throughout her fight, she has served as a beacon of hope for others. She inspires cancer survivors on social media. She recently received the Melanoma Courage Award from the Melanoma Research Foundation.
Lauren posts pictures of herself going through the roughest of treatments – at times with a shaved head and terrible scars. Yet, remarkably she is grinning in nearly all of the photos.
“It’s the only way you get through it,” she says.
Lauren arrives at medical appointments ready to rib her doctors and nurses. Even tethered to IVs, she smiles and holds an arm up like she’s just won a marathon.
“She makes you feel good on your bad days,” said Cherie Pryor, a friend of Lauren’s since third grade, who was inspired to become an oncology nurse because of Lauren.
To endure her trauma, Lauren gives to others. She loves the Denver Broncos and regularly invites friends over to watch games and eat her delicious kitchen creations. Rarely does anyone leave empty handed. They go home with leftovers or little gifts Lauren has found for them.
“Her heart is enormous,” said Pryor, who is now a nurse on the same unit where Lauren has received care at University of Colorado Hospital.
A carefree childhood spent outside
Lauren was born in California, but grew up mostly in Florence, Colorado, a small town southwest of Colorado Springs.
“I was in the swimming pool every day in the summer with that Colorado sun beating down on me,” she said.
She and her friends like Cherie rode around town on their bikes and spent time at a creek, swinging from a rope and plunging into the water. It all seemed carefree, safe and idyllic.
“Wearing sunscreen was advised, but never forced. Oh, how I wish it had been,” Lauren said.
As a teen, she had bad acne and believed the myth that sun “would make your zits go away.”
She suffered severe burns many times: “ranging from scabs on my shoulders to blisters on my legs, and even my lips. But that never stopped me. All these imperfections would go away, and I would soon have that perfect tan.”
She also got hooked on tanning beds, using them as often as every day for about 10 years. Unfortunately, few people knew then how dangerous tanning beds were. Lauren had relatives and friends who owned them, so access was easy and, in the moment, there seemed to be no cost.
“I was addicted,” Lauren said. “Nothing felt better to me than to lie in the warm bed, close my eyes and doze off to wake up an even darker complexion.”
After college, she attended school to become an esthetician, an expert in skin care. She learned about skin diseases – including melanoma – and the “ABCDEs” to recognize it. They are “A” for asymmetric (one half looks different than the other), “B” for borders (irregular edges), “C” for color that is not uniform, “D” for diameter greater than 6 millimeters or the size of a pencil eraser and “E” for evolving, meaning the mole continues to change in size, shape or color.
Of course, Lauren couldn’t see the mole on her own head. And, she’d been healthy and athletic all her life, never even breaking a bone. Not for a moment did she consider that she could have melanoma.
Now she has become a dedicated advocate for skin cancer prevention. She wants to be sure all teen girls understand the dangers of tanning beds.
“Pale skin is in. Our skin is the largest organ in the body and it needs to be protected at all times. A tan is not worth what could happen down the road,” Lauren said.
“I’m 32 years old and I had to spend the best part of my 20s dealing with cancer and the horrible parts of it, like chemo and not being able to drive because of seizures,” she said.
“If I would have known then what I know now, I never would have put myself in the situations I did,” she said.
‘Give me the aggressive one’
When Lewis presented Lauren with treatment options back in 2012, she made a characteristic choice.
“I go big or go home on everything,” she said. So, she told Lewis: “Give me the aggressive one.”
At that time, that meant receiving what’s known as bio-chemotherapy or a mixture of both biological agents and traditional chemotherapy. The combination of treatments produce rough side effects, but much better results for people coping with metastatic melanoma that has spread beyond the original tumor site.
In order to receive her treatments, Lauren had to stay at University of Colorado Hospital for five days and endure terrible fevers, nausea and the indignity of adult diapers. She then got to go home for two weeks, only to return and start the regimen all over again. This went on for four treatments over three months.
Remarkably, in the middle of all of this torment, Lauren was in a relatively new relationship.
She and her boyfriend, Luke Wilson, had met through friends from college.
“We had only been together for five months when the biopsy came back,” Lauren said.
She confided in Luke about her fears. While he couldn’t give her any guarantees about how her cancer would progress, he provided one note of certainty.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Luke said.
The couple has been inseparable ever since and Luke, who is a park ranger for the City of Lakewood, teams up with Lauren’s parents and friends to attend every medical appointment with her.
“I’ve got the best support system in the world with Luke, my friends, my family and especially my parents, Lisa and Greg,” Lauren said.
“Over almost eight years, they’ve all been at my side through every scan, every treatment, every surgery and everything in between.
“I don’t think I’d be here if it weren’t for all of them. They keep me happy. They keep me sane. They’re the best,” she said.
Clean scans and high hopes
Following the brutal bio-chemotherapy treatments, Lauren’s scans came back clean, and she was hopeful that she had beaten her melanoma for good. Cancer survivors consider it a great victory when they can go two years with “no evidence of cancer.”
Lauren made it 18 months, then cancerous spots showed up on her lungs. She had to go back into the hospital and endure painful lung biopsies, then high-doses of a drug called Interleukin-2. It’s a relatively new type of cancer-fighting medication, known as immunotherapy.
Immunotherapy medications spark a patient’s own immune system to recognize and fight cancer. (Read about a breast cancer patient who also responded well to immunotherapy.)
In decades past, patients with melanoma often had little hope, said Lewis, Lauren’s cancer specialist, who is also a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“Melanoma was really the worst of the worst,” he said.
“I used to say that melanoma was the tumor type that gives cancer a bad name. But, then it went from that to the poster child for both immunotherapy and targeted therapies,” Lewis said.
While Lauren was very unlucky to get melanoma, she has benefited from waves of new medications to fight melanoma.
“Prior to 2011, we really had no treatments,” Lewis said.
Now, combinations of various medications are helping about half of melanoma patients survive over the long term.
“Lauren has had some recurrences and setbacks, but there’s no doubt that she’s benefiting from these therapies,” Lewis said. “We have reason for hope.
“Before these therapies were approved, half of our patients with metastatic melanoma would survive for only a year. Now, half of our patients are alive at five years. It’s a dramatic change in a short period of time.”
Tumors in the brain
For Lauren, it’s been critical to be in the care of doctors who are at the cutting edge of melanoma research and care. Thanks to her team, she’s been able to stay one step ahead of her cancer.
The Interleukin-2 worked for a time, but then her heart began racing and she spiked fevers higher than her nurses had ever seen and the nurses had to halt the treatments.
Next, Lewis and his team tried infusions of another immunotherapy medication called Ipilimumab or Yervoy. It’s known for shrinking tumors in patients with advanced melanoma.
Genetic testing also showed that Lauren had a predisposition to getting melanoma because she has what’s known as the BRAF+ gene. While researchers have made gains with immunotherapy medications, they also have discovered that they could fight a patient’s cancer based on a specific defect that was causing the cancer. These treatments are known as targeted therapy. Lauren’s doctors started her on two of these drugs known as Dabrafenib or Tafinlar and Trametinib or Mekinist.
The new therapies kept Lauren’s cancer from getting worse, but she didn’t seem to improve.
So, Lewis was going to start her on a newer immunotherapy medication called pembrolizumab or Keytruda. Before she could start on it, she had to have a scan on her brain. She assumed it would turn out fine. But, the day after the scan, before she had received results, Lauren and Luke were at Costco when she knew something was terribly wrong.
“I was looking at a vending machine and I couldn’t see anything,” she said.
She turned to Luke.
“I can’t see your face,” Lauren said.
“I freaked out and emailed Dr. Lewis and said, ‘something weird is happening,’” she said.
Within hours, Lewis called her with the most wrenching news he had delivered since first telling Lauren how dangerous her melanoma was.
“We got your scans back and there are seven spots that are concerning,” he told her.
Her melanoma had spread into her brain.
She soon saw Lewis in the clinic and learned that the pain in her head was a result of bleeding from the tumors.
During nearly all of Lauren’s visits with her team, she was lighthearted and joked with Dr. Lewis. But, on the day, she remembers him being very somber.
“He explained that with brain bleeds, ‘something catastrophic could happen,’” Lauren recalled.
“I had never heard anything like that. It took my breath away,” she said.
‘I consider myself so lucky’
In order to cope with the brain tumors, Lauren had to subject herself to what felt like torture. Her neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Breeze, used highly targeted gamma radiation to kill each of the tumors in her brain at the Gamma Knife Center on the Anschutz medical campus. (Click here to read about another melanoma patient who coped with 98 brain tumors.)
Twice, Breeze and his team had to attach a frame to Lauren’s skull with surgical pins.
Then she had to slide into a tunnel, where the frame on her head locked into the device. Dr. Breeze and his team deliver extremely precise doses of radiation that, over time, kill the tumors and spare the rest of the brain from any radiation.
Lauren’s first treatment lasted nearly four hours.
Her doctors later found another tumor and Lauren had to have a second brain radiation treatment. Thankfully, that one was shorter.
Despite the difficulty of the brain treatments, Lauren smiled in photos and tapped dark humor.
“I kept referring to myself as Hannibal Lecter,” she said, referencing the spooky serial killer from the horror movie, Silence of the Lambs.
Breeze echoed Dr. Lewis in saying that the evolution of melanoma treatments has been amazing and rewarding.
“In the past, when I was treating melanoma patients, I was trying to give them a few extra months of quality time,” Breeze said. “Now, I’m hoping we’re giving them many years of long-term remission.”
While the radiation treatments killed Lauren’s brain tumors, she wasn’t out of the woods yet. After taking two types of immunotherapy medications, she got what’s known as drug-induced hepatitis. While the drugs were helping her, they were also attacking her.
“It’s the toxicity of the drugs,” Lauren said.
Once again, she had to be hospitalized in what proved to be a very scary episode.
“We didn’t know if I was ever going to leave the hospital. This hepatitis was trying to kill me,” she said. “I was in for seven days on massive doses of steroids.”
Lauren has fought her melanoma with multiple types of immunotherapy medications over the past 5 years. And, she has had to deal with additional tumors, including a lime-sized mass that had to be removed from her belly last year.
But, Lauren’s most recent scans came back clean.
“I consider myself so lucky,” she said.
Prevention key to fighting melanoma
Lauren is an inspiration both in terms of her resiliency and her optimism.
“She was diagnosed at such a young age,” Lewis said. “Young adults are growing in their careers and in their lives. She’s had to deal with this extremely deadly disease. And she has fought it for many, many years.
“Her attitude remains great,” he said.
“She always makes us laugh and has an amazing willingness to go through everything we’ve put her through.”
Lewis also appreciates Lauren’s dedication to spreading the word about the danger of tanning beds and exposure to too much sun.
“UV light from the sun is a carcinogen. In Colorado, at the altitude where we live, the UV intensity is very strong,” Lewis said.
He points out that you can suffer from sunburns year-round in Colorado.
“You can certainly get burnt in the winter, as anybody who skis in Colorado certainly knows. And, a sunburn in the winter is just as bad.”
People enjoying the outdoors in Colorado should wear protective clothing and use sunscreens that are rated at SPF 30 or greater, Lewis said.
Most at risk for melanoma are older men.
“But, it does affect young people,” Lewis said.
And, unfortunately, the incidence of melanoma is on the rise.
Even children can get it.
“It’s very rare, but we have pre-teens in our clinic. That’s the exception, but it has happened,” Lewis said.
The risks for people of all ages make prevention key.
Soaking up life
Unfortunately, because of her cancer, Lauren is unable to work. But, she has embraced some of Luke’s passions, including fishing and camping.
Unlike those days in childhood when Lauren frequently got sunburned, she never goes outdoors these days without protective clothing, hats and sunscreen.
Luke has a special awning that he hangs over their boat so Lauren has shade whenever the two go fishing. He also selects camping spots carefully to ensure that Lauren can spend time sheltered under trees.
Lauren and Luke frequently go camping with Pryor and her boyfriend. During a trip over the summer, Lauren showed off the zaniness that Pryor has loved since childhood.
The two couples were camping near Steamboat when Lauren and Pryor were driving near the campground and spotted an old brown leather recliner that someone had put out for the trash.
“We have to stop and get that chair and take it back to the campsite,” Lauren spontaneously announced.
The women erupted in laughter and loaded up the recliner. They set it up by the campfire and scored plenty of laughs when the gents returned.
“She was always the one who had the goofy ideas and would talk me into things,” Pryor said. “She just knows how to soak up everything. Even with all she’s going through, she’s big on living life.”
Lauren says her attitude is quite deliberate.
“Some days are hard. It’s definitely a mental game. But, I always tell myself, ‘You’re going to have a great day.’”
And while making joy a part of each day, she keeps reminding others of an important message: “Know your skin. Check your skin. Love your skin.”