Vice President of Community
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Science and health-minded long before her diagnosis, Lauren Lastauskas didn’t know that a cervical cancer diagnosis at age 23 would change her life in all the ways that it has. Her professional life took a detour just as her personal life did.
Lauren lives in Oklahoma but grew up in the Myrtle Beach area in South Carolina. Her favorite place in the world is San Pedro Island in Belize. She has had the chance to go there twice. The first time was a mother-daughter trip booked by her mother just before Lauren had a major procedure during her diagnosis. The second time was a couple of years later on a family trip. Lauren shared that it’s just really beautiful and she loves it there.
As a huge animal-lover, the trip Lauren would love to take is a three-week trip to Africa to do all the animal-related and adventure tourist “stuff” – safaris and diving with great white sharks.
Lauren’s mom, Donna, has always been her number-one supporter. Donna is well known to the entire Gryt Health team because Donna will frequently show up at various programs and events just to support Lauren. In some ways, Donna has become one of Gryt Health’s biggest supporters and a supporter of each and every one of us! To round off her immediate familial support system, Lauren has an older brother and her father. Her brother, 4 years Lauren’s senior, has been married for about 4 years now, so she also has a sister-in-law.
Additionally, Lauren has some friends from high school and college that she is still in touch with, but there is one friend, in particular, who has remained very close to Lauren and was by her side throughout her diagnosis and treatment. Lauren’s German Shepherd Dog, Roxy, was the love of her life though. Roxy was adopted when Lauren lived in Hawaii and Roxy traveled extensively with Lauren. Sadly, Roxy passed away 4 years ago, leaving Lauren heartbroken. She is immensely missed to this day. Lauren’s parents also have dogs and a former roommate has a dog, Fiona, that Lauren is quite fond of as well.
Currently, Lauren does not live with any furry friends as when she moved to Oklahoma with her current beau, they moved into a new house and they decided not to have any animals at this time. So in order to get her animal love in on a regular basis, she and her boyfriend, Dustin, volunteer regularly with dogs at a local Humane Society and with horses at a therapeutic riding center.
In the meantime, Lauren keeps trying to convince Dustin that they need their own four-legged companion. She has a strong desire to have her own fur-daughter.
Our Vice President of Community at Gryt Health, Lauren is very involved with anything that involves our patient, survivor, and caregiver communities. Lauren plans and executes Gryt Health community virtual programming with the assistance of the growing Community team, like the Monthly Community Meetups and topic-specific educational programs throughout the year. She is very involved in the planning and execution of Gryt Health’s cornerstone event, the Global Virtual Cancer Conference (GVCC). GVCC is the first and largest virtual cancer conference planned with patients, survivors, and caregivers in mind.
Lauren is extremely intelligent and, in her words, “used to be an overachiever.” She graduated from high school in three years while attending a technical college at night. With a year and a half of college credits already, she continued onto the University of South Carolina to study in their pre-pharmacy program with pre-acceptance into the pharmacology school. She quickly realized that she didn’t like chemistry as much as she thought she did, but she was getting some face-to-face experience with patients by volunteering at a local free medical clinic.
However, after her freshman year, she ended up moving to Hawaii with her then-husband and worked at a private school as an assistant. When that relationship ended, she moved back to South Carolina and back in with her parents. Lauren decided to finish up her Bachelor’s degree in biology at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. A few years after college, Lauren made her way back to Columbia, SC to start a physician assistant program, but decided that was not a good fit for her.
Professionally, Lauren has always had a strong work ethic. Her mother is an entrepreneur and Lauren always assisted her mother and then at age 14, she legally started working. When she was completing her undergraduate work, she shadowed an OB/GYN private practice. She also returned to Hawaii for a summer and had a paid internship in an ER there. If she had time during the internship, she would go to other parts of the hospital for observations to soak in as much information about the medical fields as she could.
Lauren had a brief career in a Myrtle Beach emergency room as a medical scribe. Then Lauren returned to working with the private practice OB/GYN. When Lauren obtained her Bachelor’s degree, she accepted a position at an outpatient clinic, Grand Strand Heart and Vascular. Learning various roles quickly, she gradually moved through the practice into different positions, while they paid for her to become a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA). She started as a checkout clerk and moved into more hands-on-with-patients roles. Again, if she had some time, she would go over to the hospital for observations.
While Lauren was enjoying all the different experiences she had access to as a float working in medical offices and having opportunities to observe various specialties within the hospital system, she just was not finding the right fit with the PA program. When she left that program is when she found Gryt Health. Lauren has been on the Community Team since she joined Gryt.
When Lauren found Gryt Health, she was unemployed and contemplating what path she wanted to take in life. She had been doing advocacy work and public speaking on a volunteer basis, sharing her cancer story. Lauren really wanted to find a position that would allow her to be nerdy and access the scientific and medical natural bend she had. Then she realized that she was actually pretty good at sharing her story, connecting with people who had been through similar experiences, connecting those same people to resources they had been in need of, and the advocacy work she had been doing. Gryt Health ended up being the perfect combination for her.
Lauren gets excited when she is able to interact with new community members through all the virtual Gryt Health events and when she travels to various conferences to represent the company. She enjoys hearing the various experiences people have and how different each individual’s experiences are, nationally and internationally.
The Gryt Health community members are truly where Lauren’s heart is. Lauren really tries to go above and beyond for the Gryt Health community members, connecting them to information, organizations, or individuals to help get them the information and support they need at the moment they need it. She knows it is never a requirement, but she enjoys it and feels good about helping others at that level. Then, when she sees them at the next event and they virtually go out of their way to publicly thank her for doing something, she can actually see that she is making a difference in people’s lives.
When the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, came out in 2006, Lauren was barely old enough to receive it. Unfortunately, at that time, her pediatrician never recommended it to her or her parents. So, she never got it. She just went on with living her life and didn’t think about it at all.
At 21, Lauren had her first PAP test and it was normal. A short time later, she had cervical polyps that were found because she was having abnormal bleeding. Testing was done on those and they were non-cancerous.
When Lauren moved to back to South Carolina, her insurance changed. Her birth control prescription ran out so she scheduled an appointment to establish care and get a refill. When she scheduled, they asked if she wanted a PAP test and other routine testing. Lauren knew it would be covered since she just got new insurance, so she agreed. The results from the PAP test showed high-grade abnormalities on her cervical cells.
They proceeded to take biopsies. Lauren’s medical mind, having worked for a GYN office and knowing all the statistics and data surrounding these kinds of test results set her brain whirling around in circles.
Her doctor followed recommended protocol so her next step was to get a LEEP procedure done which is an electrocauterization of the end of her cervix. This is normally an in-office procedure, but Lauren opted to have this done as a same day surgery in the local hospital. After the results came back, Lauren needed to go for a follow-up appointment. Things got drawn out because it was the holiday season.
When Lauren finally went in for the post-op follow-up, she had the exam in the examination room and then the doctor asked her to get dressed and go to her office. The doctor also brought Lauren’s mom back.
So there they are, sitting in the doctor’s terrible, messy office with tons of books and medical journals everywhere and she clearly told Lauren she had cancer. The doctor proceeded to brush off the diagnosis, “It’s okay though, it’s just a little cancer. The margins are clear so just come back in 3 months.”
Obviously, Lauren was less than satisfied with this plan of care and decided to get a second opinion. She was referred to a gynecologic oncologist two and a half hours away. That doctor was not covered by her insurance so she had to find another that did accept her insurance and scheduled an appointment.
On January 4, 2016, she received her official diagnosis. She then received a PET scan and had another, larger procedure. More cancer was found. The previous doctor was wrong, the margins were not clear.
Due to the trauma her body had been through, the oncologist suggested waiting to allow her body to heal some first, so in May 2016 Lauren had a radical hysterectomy done. She had her cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, the upper third of her vagina, and 23 pelvic lymph nodes removed. Additionally, she had an ovarian transposition, where they move your ovaries up and over so they are out of the field of potential radiation. Her procedure was done by the Da Vinci robot. Being the fiercely stubborn and independent woman that she is, she insisted on going home earlier than they wanted her to from the hospital so she went home early with a catheter. Several weeks later she was able to shed the catheter.
Her doctor gave her the news that her margins were clear and that the procedure was successful. She continued to follow up and just this past September (2021), Lauren graduated to annual visits with her GYN oncologist.
The most challenging part for Lauren was the recovery time after her last procedure. She was unable to do much and that was frustrating for her. Eight weeks of hardly any activity was something she was not used to. The other challenging part has been the cancer aftermath – depression, anxiety, weight gain, fertility loss, fatigue, and other mental health struggles. The things that are ongoing. Now that Lauren is 29, she struggles more with the infertility issue than she did when she was younger as it is in the forefront of her mind and she is starting to witness friends starting their families.
Lauren has a lot of cherished memories from when she was going through treatment. She shared that most of them are comical arguments that she had with her mother. Other times, her memories involve her mother doing cutesy things for her and doing a lot of baking.
One instance she shared was coming home from the hospital. Since she had a catheter, she had a leg bag strapped to her thigh to collect her urine. May in South Carolina is hot so she had a skirt on.
When Lauren got out of the car, the leg bag had gotten too full and snapped off of her leg. Lauren was screaming because she thought she had pulled her catheter out. Since the bag was so full of urine, it was heavy and was dangling between her legs. The weight of the bag made it fall to the pavement and it exploded with urine going everywhere.
At this point, Lauren said she had pulled her skirt all the way up and her mother was bent over, looking at her vagina, in the middle of the driveway. (Now, that’s love, people!)
Lauren wishes that someone would have told her that cancer isn’t just magically over when treatment is. There are long-term effects and a lot of other issues that go along with survivorship. Lauren isn’t sure if knowing that would have changed anything or not because hindsight is 20/20, but it still would have been good to know.
There is an extensive family connection to cancer in Lauren’s family. She is a cervical cancer survivor. Her sister-in-law and a grandmother both experienced breast cancer, with her grandmother experiencing a recurrence and passing away. An aunt had lung cancer in her forties, and her father’s side of the family has a history of pancreatic cancer with his sister, Lauren’s aunt, dying of metastatic pancreatic cancer. Currently, her mother is living with a terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Lauren was additionally touched by cancer at a young age. One of her best friends lost her sister to leukemia in middle school.
It’s extremely important for Lauren to share her story. She shared, “It’s incredibly important for me to share my story and use my voice, selfishly, it helps me cope. It makes me feel better by expressing my feelings and emotions because if you keep bottling them up, it’s not going to go well at some point. The more I talked about it, the better. I kind of came to terms with things and accepted them.”
Before Lauren got into advocacy, she held a lot of anger inside of her. Once she started sharing her story and doing advocacy work, the anger gradually melted away. Learning how much her story makes a difference and inspires others is what drives Lauren to use her voice. Early in her survivorship, Lauren realized that when she told her story, the medical community realized that patients weren’t just numbers. They reacted to, encouraged her, and then proceeded to share important information with their own patients. She saw the ripple effect of her voice.
Her experience really amplified when she started sharing her cervical cancer experience on social media. She began getting endless messages regarding unsettling PAP test results, women in her circles inquiring about whether or not they should get the HPV vaccination, and just generally reaching out to see how things were going. These things really kept her going through some challenging times.
Still, Lauren was pretty quick to share her experiences on social media even if she didn’t go into a lot of detail initially. She was still taking college courses and needed to share her experience with her professors. A couple of them had in turn shared that they personally had experienced young adult cancer diagnoses as well. She received a lot of understanding and empathy from everyone.
She felt cathartic when she had opportunities to share. It was therapeutic for her. Lauren shares frequently, “I just needed to get it out.”
Lauren also is committed to using her voice for her friends and acquaintances that she has met through her cancer journey who have passed on. Speaking up and speaking out is a way for Lauren to honor their lives and keep their memories going strong. It is also a great reminder that there is still a lot more work to be done.
When Lauren was asked how she identifies now, she said, “I call myself a cancer survivor, cervical cancer survivor, young adult cancer survivor. Just because I go off of the idea of the day you’re diagnosed, you’re a cancer survivor, and that’s what I always taught my patients when I worked in health care.”
She continued, “I definitely always personally stick to survivor, but definitely believe whatever gets you through your day and makes you feel better about what you’re going through, or went through, use it.”
Lauren described her life after cancer for us. “Jokes aside and shitty parts aside, I’ve always been pretty outspoken, but after cancer, it’s really taught me time is precious. Not in some magical, whimsical way but in the way of saying no when you don’t want to do something. I’m not giving in to people, I’m not living to please other people. I am really realizing like, it really is just your one shot, it’s just your one life, and trying to make the most of it. I wish I could make the most of it more often but, you know, I have to be an adult, but I’m just less tolerable of bullshit really.”
Lauren enjoys going out to eat and consuming adult beverages whenever it’s safe to. That is something she has really missed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lauren is a self-described craft beer snob. She also enjoys music and being outdoors.
She also enjoys traveling, especially to warm weather beaches. She is an adventurous person and when traveling loves to sneak in some time to do scuba diving, one of her favorite pastimes. Lauren is known throughout the Gryt Health virtual office to take breaks or leave a bit early on nice, sunny, warm days so she can find an outdoor adventure of some sort. She finds those sorts of breaks energizing.