Giving Meaning to a Sister’s Life

Coming to terms with a cancer death in the only way possible — with purpose

The word “cancer” has always been part of my vocabulary. While my family had to learn it in a shocking way, it is as normal to me as anything taught in school.

I was never diagnosed — but I lost a sibling to neuroblastoma, a particularly brutal form of pediatric cancer.

Lauren Zagoria, my sister, died just shy of three years old before I was ever born.

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I never saw her face in person, never heard her laugh, never held her hand. Sometimes, she didn’t even seem real.

For a long time, I had no connection to her and no true understanding of the severity of her illness.

(photo:Zagoria Family)
An adorable Lauren Zakoria before she succumbed to cancer (photo: Zagoria family)

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It wasn’t until I sat down with my mom one day and she shared the details of Lauren’s illness, including the moment Lauren died — the moment her heart monitor went flat and her struggle ended — that I finally began to grasp the reality of the situation and feel her presence. It was one of the most horrible yet important conversations I’ve ever had.

Hearing the pain in my mom’s voice helped me begin to wrap my head around what it was like for my parents. I felt a deeper pain for their losing a daughter and an entirely new ache in my heart from losing my sister.

Honoring a Legacy
Every single day, 36 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer. Soon after my sister passed, a cancer treatment and research center approached my parents about creating an athletic running event in her honor to support pediatric cancer research. Lauren’s Run was born a year or so later.

And so was I.

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[lz_bulleted_list title=”Childhood Cancer Funding Disparities” source=””]Half of all children’s chemotherapy treatments are over 25 years old|Pharmaceutical companies spend next to nothing on childhood cancers|NCI (National Cancer Institute) spends only 4 percent of its budget on children’s cancers|NCI funding for pediatric clinical trials is $26.4 million, while funding for AIDS research is $254 million and breast cancer, $584 million.[/lz_bulleted_list]

Lauren’s Run, held in Atlanta, Georgia, has changed quite a bit over the years; in fact, several years ago, it was adopted by the Atlanta-based nonprofit, CURE Childhood Cancer. Kristin Connor, its executive director, is a true blessing and the organization would not be where it is today without her compassionate guidance and vision for its future.

Lauren’s Run takes place every spring and has grown at an exponential rate, from the event itself to the volunteers, families, and runners who participate, to the money raised, which reached $3.4 million as of last year’s run. (The most recent run was held this past week.)

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While Lauren’s Run is a huge part of my life and an important cause, I know I am like so many others working tirelessly to make the most of our loved ones’ legacies: We would give anything to have our family back with us — alive and healthy today.

At least once a day, I wish I had my sister to talk to. There are so many times I have imagined how my life might have been different and how she might be like my brother and me. It is difficult to put those thoughts away, but I have made peace with it in the best way I know how: with purpose.

Lauren’s life was so much bigger than her short time on Earth. Her death has gone on to save so many other lives.

Every single day, 36 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer.

When Lauren was diagnosed 25 years ago, the survival rate for her cancer was only 10 percent. Those diagnosed were lucky to survive. Today, due to not only the efforts of our own family but through the contributions of so many others — many of whom have gone through the same loss — the survival rate today is 75 percent. That rate of survival was once unthinkable.

I still miss and think about Lauren every single day, but I know there are people out there who will never go through the pain of my parents, my brother, or myself because of new research and treatments made possible through events like Lauren’s Run.

There are new events and efforts popping up with every new day, it seems, to further support the cause, get involved, and make a difference for the others who will undoubtedly come after us.

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To know we helped even one child survive brings tears to my eyes and a smile to my face. When I utter the line I have repeated so many times — “I had a sister who passed away from childhood cancer” — I now know it means much more than what it appears on the surface. Her death means life for so many — and that is a pretty powerful thing.

Haley Zagoria, a marketing coordinator for Golf Channel in Orlando, Florida, is a native Atlantan and a graduate of Appalachian State University.​

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