“…My parents walked over and said that the doctors were really concerned, that it could be cancer and that I would have to get a biopsy. In the moment, I was speechless. I just broke down. I remember thinking how is it that my scans are so different? How are my scans so bad? How do I have all of this inside me and nobody else does? How is it that anyone else would be completely fine if they got the scans and I’m not fine?“
About a year ago, Liz Lofurno was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that develops in the lymphatic system. I met Liz the day after her diagnosis, when she broke the news to her teammates, and then had a chance to interview her last fall. I was nervous. I didn’t really know Liz. Would she be comfortable talking about the chemotherapy she was undergoing? About the mental challenges? Everything was so new. Well, there was really nothing to worry about. Liz was relentlessly optimistic and chatty. She immediately put me at ease, showing me her wig and introducing me to her dog, giving me details about the complex science of her treatment and updating me on her daily routines. I shouldn’t have been surprised by her openness. She kept a Caring Bridge blog throughout her treatment, which she updated almost every day for a legion of supporters actively following her progress.
At the time, Liz had just gone through her third round of chemotherapy. The first cycle was rough—she didn’t remember the first three days because of the drugs—but the doctors were able to adjust her nausea medications for the second cycle and from then on, the treatments went more smoothly. She had hoped to start playing again this winter, but a blood clot kept her temporarily side-lined. Instead, she began playing in stages – just passing on the sidelines, then playing with no contact, and then, this summer, she was fully cleared to play. In the meantime, she’s raised money for the Angel Hair Foundation and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and now she’s on an advisory board for the Children’s Cancer Association, based in Oregon. I was thrilled to have another chance to talk to Liz, ‘on the record,’ this week—about her diagnosis, her recovery, and how she maintained her positivity.
Will you talk us through the process of finding out you had cancer and what your reaction was like at the time?
I was diagnosed almost a year ago and at the time I had been playing summer tournaments with my club team. My energy was kind of lagging, especially during conditioning, but I didn’t feel like anything was wrong. I just thought I was slow. And then I also got a weird feeling in my throat but it wasn’t anything major. I called it my bubbles and it felt like something was coming up but I knew nothing was. It was just like something catching at my wind pipe.
But I’d been getting these weird night chills and fevers randomly, like once every six months and then once every three months, and then as it got closer to September 2015 I started getting those chills every night—which was the main reason I went to the doctor. I also had really bad pains in multiple areas on my back and my left femur. I got a CT scan on September 9, after my mom and I decided to show my doctor a bump on my chest. At first we thought it was just my collar bone sticking out, but it slowly grew bigger. So that night, after the scan, I was eating a cookie in the kitchen when my mom got this call and left the room and I could hear her say, ‘Well what would you do if it were your kid?’ At this point, I was convincing myself it was nothing, but I also remember thinking, if it’s bad news I’m not going to want to finish this. So I just decided to take a huge bite of my cookie and swallow the whole thing. So then my mom got off the phone and my parents walked over and said that the doctors were really concerned, that it could be cancer and that I would have to get a biopsy. In the moment, I was speechless. I just broke down. I remember thinking how is it that my scans are so different? How are my scans so bad? How do I have all of this inside me and nobody else does? How is it that anyone else would be completely fine if they got the scans and I’m not fine?
Right. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason. What makes you have that cancer inside your body when another girl with the same lifestyle, same age, same height, does not?
I couldn’t believe it. So that night, I talked to the doctor and she said we should try to go on with our daily routine. Somehow I slept really well that night, even though I didn’t fall asleep until late. So then I woke up, and at the point like every fifteen minutes someone in my family would break down. My dad drove me to school and he was saying, ‘Be prepared today or tomorrow you’re going to have surgery for the biopsy.’ So I got to school and just kept thinking ‘Stay calm.’ I had talked to a few friends the night before and I made sure they would be there when I got there. I got to school like five minutes before the bell rang, so I didn’t have much time purposefully, because I didn’t want to talk to people. So I found my friends—nobody knew what to say—and then ten minutes into first period my mom texted me, ‘Spit out your gum, don’t drink anything, don’t eat anything, I’m picking you up and you’re going in for surgery today.’
I was technically an emergency surgery, and that was the first time it was real. They were thinking it could be a bone cancer and the doctor was showing me it was in my lungs and my lymph nodes, but they needed more scans because they needed to see where else it was. After all of my scans it was discovered that I had cancer in my lungs, in the bones of multiple areas of my back and femur, in the lymph nodes behind my stomach and in my neck. When we saw it was stage 4, that was really a kick to the gut. And then two hours later I went in for surgery. They figured out it wasn’t a bone cancer, it was stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. They needed to know that before they put the port in the next Tuesday.
How did you feel like your community rallied around you while you were going through your diagnosis and the months of chemo that followed?
It was overwhelming—in a good way! All the support really helped, especially when friends would just take my mind off things. Like my neighbor Haley Graham said we’re going to make wristbands and she thought of the #LizStrong slogan, and then my friends thought of a t-shirt. Designing things was a great distraction.
My family was so positive. We found weird, funny moments in everything. I remember when they put the IV in during my first CT scan, it made my whole body go warm, from my ears down my neck. I thought that was so cool and we’d laugh about it. At that point, I kept telling myself that nothing was wrong even though my parents knew something was wrong. Then I got another CT after I knew it was cancer and it was the same thing. As awful as it was, we still found moments.
You were so mentally tough throughout your treatment. How much of that came from within you and how much of it came from the support of your community?
Well, it was weird—I’d be writing my Caring Bridge posts and everyone would say, wow, you’re so positive, how do stay like that? I think it helped them to read the blog and know that I was feeling positive, but it wasn’t intentional. It came pretty naturally—I was just being myself and I was really positive about it. My one little thing was that I did not want to throw up, but I think I was pretty mentally strong. At first, I was really down but my mom helped a lot. The doctor told us to go see a reproductive specialist and I was really upset about that, and my mom said, ‘If there wasn’t a good chance of you living, we wouldn’t be seeing a reproductive specialist.’ She really started off the positivity.
When Tenacity came to Portland, you couldn’t really play. How hard was that?
Tenacity made it really easy for me to be a part of the community. At the meeting in January, I talked to Theresa and told her I was done with treatment but that I couldn’t play because of a blood clot. And she said that’s okay, you have a spot on the team no matter what. And that really helped. And Natalie was extremely supportive. She came to the hospital during one of my chemos and told me that everyone was there for me. I knew the coaches and my friends were all there, so even though I was disappointed that I couldn’t play, it was still really fun. And my teammates were so interested in how I had to inject myself with blood thinners. There was one time I had a crowd of like ten people watching me—they thought it was so cool. Even though I couldn’t play, having a team really helped.
You recently went down to Bend with Whales, a team of elite players dedicated to raising money for charity in the name of one player or person. This year, Whales played for you and raised over $14,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. How was the experience of getting out there with a new team playing for a cause that means so much to you?
Bend was so much fun. The whole team was able to bond so much even though we didn’t know each other and I just loved playing with them. Everyone was supportive and there was no pressure at all. We got to score as many goals as we could and it was for charity – you don’t hear that everyday. We had one girl on our team who hadn’t even been playing lacrosse for a whole season and we made it our mission to get her to score a goal. So we’d be really patient with it and wait for good opportunities, and she was really good. After a few shots that didn’t go in, she made a goal in the last game and we got it on video. It was just the best moment. It wasn’t your typical tournament. We were playing for a cause and that made it so special.
It’s been a year since you were diagnosed. What are you most excited about as you begin this next school year?
Staying connected to things! Even though I had so many people supporting me, it was really hard to stay connected when I was out of school for so long. I’m excited to be in school and doing everything, rather than taking classes online. Obviously I’m excited for no more chemo treatments. And my hair growing back!
Your hair has changed!
Yeah! It’s kind of the same color but it has these natural highlights that don’t really look natural. Like it has these bleached tips and it’s curly now. I had straight hair before.
Do you feel like your perspective on yourself has changed over the past year? Have you changed at all as a result of your diagnosis and treatment?
Mainly my perspective on cancer patients has changed. I would have never imagined myself as a cancer patient. You see them in ads or fundraising materials and they seem so different and then it happens to you. Now, I look at those ads and realize they are just normal people who were unlucky. They’re just like me. And now I’ve gotten involved with Whales and other fundraisers, and I would have never done stuff like that before.
Are you going to continue to do community service or fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society?
Yes. Right now, I’m on the teen advisory board for the Children’s Cancer Association with three other teens who had cancer. We’re looking at children’s hospitals and trying to figure out ways to make them more teen focused. Little things, like renting P-13 movies. We’re also looking at mentorship programs to help kids who are diagnosed and going through treatment.
I’m also the honored teen for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. They have these fundraising campaigns to raise money and they always have a student of the year, a man of the year and a woman of the year—Riley Murphy, my friend who also plays for Tenacity, ran for student of the year last year—and then for all of those campaigns they have honored heroes. This year, I’m one of the honored heroes. We’re working with the coordinator and videographer right now to make a short video to inspire people to raise money.
Was it hard to get back into shape?
It wasn’t too bad. I’ve been working out since last January, because even with the blood clot I could work out. Now I think I’m in better shape than I was before, but getting there was really hard. Like when I was on chemo, my dad and I would try to go on runs. We’d do a small one mile loop and I kept forgetting I was on chemo, but then my lungs would feel numb. It was cold and my throat just felt cold. So working out while on chemo was really, really tough. It was really hard to imagine getting back in shape, but then I worked with a physical therapist and a trainer and it was fine.
What are your lacrosse goals this year?
I love club lacrosse, but I’m really looking forward to West Linn lacrosse in the spring because I missed our whole season last year. I’m also looking forward to our tournament in Disney World because I missed that when I was on chemo last fall. Honestly, I’m not sure if I want to play in college or not—I really need to think about it—but I want to keep getting better and gain more confidence. I really want to become more confident.
Written By: Courtney Bird
September 10th, 2016