A Mother’s Day Gift: When The Patient Becomes the Healer

Laronica Conway’s mother Lillie loved biology, science projects, and working with kids. Growing up in tiny Independence, Louisiana, education was a top priority in her family. As a child, Lillie dreamed of becoming a pediatrician, but she knew that her family did not have the money needed to pursue a medical career. Wanting to do something related to science, she studied toward a degree in education. Earning her degree would be the start of a nearly 40-year career at Delta High School in rural Mer Rouge, Louisiana.

Lillie would go on to spend 21 years as a biology/general science teacher. Upset by the lack of guidance toward further education, she returned to school where she earned a Master’s degree in counseling. In her role, first as a teacher and then as a guidance counselor – she touched more lives than can be counted. She considered her students to be “her kids” and kept in touch with many of them well into adulthood.

It was an unexplained sore neck that led her to see her doctor. The diagnosis: Stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer. Lillie had quit smoking thirteen years earlier. As she did everything in her life, Lillie approached the diagnosis with her signature unbreakable spirit and “never hit the snooze button” attitude. And Laronica was right alongside her, “commuting” from Alabama to be with her mother.

Photo of Lillie with a corsage

Finding Enjoyment in the Little Things

As time went on, Lillie’s symptoms and needs increased. She began to call Laronica – who had a demanding job in college athletics – several times a day. And Laronica, for her part, was struggling to try to manage her mother’s care from 400 miles away. She soon quit her job and moved to her childhood home for what would be the final nine months of Lillie’s life.

Laronica describes those months as magical. The time together in Louisiana allowed them to celebrate and enjoy the little things in life. They’d pass the days going to the local Target, roaming the aisles for little things they didn’t need. They would often bump into former students of Lillie’s who were thrilled to see her. Other days, they would go to the movie theater, not to see a movie, but to buy and enjoy a bucket of popcorn, Lillie’s favorite. Many afternoons were spent lazing around the house, watching “Steve Harvey,” “Family Feud” and “The Price Is Right.” No matter how they filled their days, Laronica will always consider those months to be a gift.

Laronica with her mother Lillie

Lillie’s Mother’s Day Gift

Less than a week after Mother’s Day, 2012, Lillie lost her battle with lung cancer. Laronica has no doubt that it was her mother’s fortitude to fight for those final few days, lest Mother’s Day always be associated with her passing. It was Lillie’s final gift to her daughter.

A couple of weeks later, Laronica found herself at a crossroads. She knew that it was time to get back to her life, her home and her career. When she returned to Alabama, the sadness of having lost her mother overwhelmed her. She found herself seldom leaving the house. She spent most days doing little other than watching the same shows she’d watched with Lillie. And then one day she sat up and said to herself,

“My momma wouldn’t want this.”

It was time to try to emerge from mourning, Laronica began searching for anything she could find about lung cancer. She became a presence on Twitter. In creating the now-ubiquitous hashtag, #LCSM she became one of the founders of Lung Cancer Social Media; a community whose focus is to use social media in a way that educates, develops public support, ends the stigma, and facilitates successful treatments for lung cancer.

Continuing the Healing

Energized by the #LCSM movement, Laronica strived to do more for lung cancer patients and their families. She knew how much Lillie had enjoyed the visits from volunteers during her treatments so she contacted the local hospital to inquire about being a volunteer. She started a few days later and knows it was “exactly what she needed” to continue the healing process.

Between her volunteer work and having been a caregiver and advocate for her mother, Laronica started to consider a career change to a role in the medical field. She credits her involvement with #LCSM, the knowledge she acquired while participating in chats and writing and a little luck for landing what she considers her dream job as a research study coordinator. Now, in honor and memory of her mother Lillie, Laronica serves as the liaison between doctors and patients with cancers of the head, neck, and lung; a role she loves and thanks her mother for helping her find.

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