Courageous teen shares story of survival; Relay for Life a part of his support
Randy Lawrence of Milaca turned 16 this year and earned his driver’s license, milestones his family could not be sure he’d reach after a diagnosis of pediatric thyroid cancer.
His mom, Jaime Lawrence, said August marks the 8th year in a row Randy’s scans have been clear. It is also the month he got the first news of his diagnosis and a year later, the first scan that showed no cancer was in early August.
Randy received that good news about a day or so before the Mille Lacs County Relay for Life that year. He and Jaime remember his name being announced over the loudspeaker and the ensuring celebration.
“I was one of the first small kids at this Relay,” Randy said, adding he hasn’t missed one since then.
A cancer journey begins
Randy was seven years old when he was diagnosed. He said he’d always been a slender kid, but he’d lost weight and his mom noticed his wrist bones looked like they were sticking out. She swung into a Milaca clinic, where the doctor detected one swollen lymph node and prescribed antibiotics for a presumed infection.
During that weekend, the node swelled to about the size of a quarter. Though the bloodwork had been normal, the doctor ordered an MRI scan.
“His MRI showed that his neck was full of swollen lymph nodes,” Jaime said.
Next they visited an oncologist and then went back for a biopsy. Jaime said before they even got back home from the biopsy, they had a message to come in immediately. Randy underwent a total of 10 hours of surgery in two days’ time to do an open biopsy and to remove 30 lymph nodes plus his thyroid gland.
The surgery left him with an ear-to-scar that runs underneath his chin, and the lack of a thyroid continues to plague him. Jaime said he takes about 16 pills a day and will be on thyroid-correcting medication the rest of his life, as well as calcium, vitamin and other supplements.
“There is no amount of meds that can make up for a healthy thyroid gland,” she said. “Your thyroid controls so much of your body functions.”
Randy endures challenges with weight, mood swings, regulating his body temperature and other side effects. Because he’ll be on medication all his life, he’s been told he cannot enlist for military service.
He must have bloodwork every six months and periodic scans that Jaime says gives them all “scan-xiety,” because thyroid cancer can return plus increases a person’s chances of developing other cancer.
Nasty side effects
Randy said about his diagnosis and treatment, “I had no idea what was going on.”
Jaime said she had thought a lot about how to explain what was going on to her young son. She settled on “those funky lumps in your neck are making you sick and have to come out.” That was enough for a child of 7, and he proceeded to show all the adults on the oncology floor what optimism looks like.
His mom said back then, there was not a pediatric facility for thyroid-cancer treatment. The treatment involves pumping radioactive iodine into patients, so they must be in a lead-lined room. Thyroid cancer typically affects women over 40, and it was highly unusual for young child to have it.
She said one of the nurses told her, “Yeah, we’ve been trying to figure out what we’re going to do with a radioactive 7-year-old.” Jaime said they did the radioactive iodine treatments, which kills cancerous thyroid cells, every three months for three years.
Randy could not be around children or pregnant women for about a week after the treatments. He also remembers the dietary restrictions of no sea salt, no iodized salt, nothing from the ocean, no dairy or soy, limited meat and only three servings of breads and grains per day were allowed.
Randy is glad he didn’t have to undergo chemo, but the disease created hardship for him. He said elementary and middle school were terrible experiences because he looked different when he came back to school after treatment. He said he looked sick, kids didn’t understand why he had the big scar across his neck, and the lack of a thyroid still causes him to struggle with maintaining his weight.
Randy said he was teased and bullied and became depressed. He has had suicidal thoughts and tendencies but said therapy, medication and the support of friends, family, teachers and counselors are helping.
Plans for the future
Randy said he’s focused on graduating “on time” and going to college, “I actually got accepted to St. Cloud State for teaching music.”
He’s been in band since 5th grade in Milaca and loves performing with the Milaca Marching Wolves despite the miles of marching in heavy outfits when it’s hot. He’s proud to be a member of one of Minnesota’s top marching bands and of his recent acceptance into the honor band.
He plays the tuba and the sousaphone mainly but said he knows how to play nearly all instruments except the piano and flute. Randy’s learned that most woodwind instruments are all about “the lip, lung and sitting up straight.”
He said, “I like music, so I’m going to see how that goes in my life.”
Anyone who stops by the Milaca Hardee’s has probably seen or met Randy, who started working there full time this spring. He said he does a little bit of everything – cook, clean, manage, close, cashier. He’s been offered a management position but turned that down so he can stay focused on graduation and college.
Coping, life lessons
Randy said about the cancer, “It hasn’t relapsed, but I’m afraid it’s going to.”
He was aware even as a small child that the cancer affected his whole family. His dad lost his mother to cancer and also has no thyroid due to the auto-immune disorder Grave’s disease, so his father took the illness hard.
Jaime said she followed the doctors’ advice in not babying her oldest of three boys too much because he was sick. She said she never let him use the cancer as an excuse and is able to realize some of the good things that have resulted from their experience.
She’s met a lot of nice people and made many new friends for life; she’s also been able to help other parents in special Facebook groups focused on thyroid health and low-iodine diets. Jaime also discovered the web site www.thyca.org, where thyroid-cancer survivors meet, converse and exchange information and resources.
Jaime came to realize doctors are not always right and it’s OK to get a second opinion, ask a lot of questions and take notes. Other blessings were a 10-day stay at a Ronald McDonald House and a family “wish trip” to the Give Kids the World Village, which was a weeklong Disneyworld-based experience.
The family’s early years were spent in Princeton, and they eventually moved to a Milaca farmhouse that fits the family well. Jaime said the experience with cancer helped everyone realize what’s important.
Randy said though he struggles with stress, anxiety and other issues, he’s thankful the cancer has not come back and grateful he didn’t have to do chemo. He also recognizes how the Relay for Life has been one of his strong coping tools over the years.
The young man said about survivorship, “You’ve got to have friends and just fight through it.”
Jaime said about the family’s journey: “We learned to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”