by Rana Asfour
It was on a beautiful Abu Dhabi October morning, in Vascos, a quaint Italian restaurant overlooking the sea that my path crossed with wife, mom, daughter, cancer survivor, inspirational speaker and author Laurie A. Nelson.
A week before this meeting, I’d contacted the wonderful ‘Real Housewives of Abu Dhabi’ who were organising Laurie’s debut release ‘When Gray Becomes a Primary Color’ asking if it were possible to attend the event and later meet with Laurie for a few questions. I knew many readers would be eager to read Laurie’s story and would want to know more about the woman whose world was turned upside down when doctors found a nickel size tumour on the right side of her brain. The nickel had a name: Stage 3 Brain Cancer. She was given two years to live. That was over twelve years ago.
With new advancements in medicine, Laurie is only too keenly aware she has been given a new lease on life. Five years ago she moved with her family from Arizona in the US to Abu Dhabi where she hopes that her message regarding early diagnosis will help to change many lives in a place where cancer awareness ‘is not openly talked about’. Her broader mission is to provide a safe and open conversation with other Cancer Survivors throughout the world.
The first thing that strikes me about Laurie is how much she genuinely loves people and how openly honest she is about what happened to her. I watch her briefly as she greets each guest who has come forward to say hello and how she attentively takes the time to listen to what they have to say. As soon as I introduce myself, I too am enveloped in a hug that takes me totally by surprise. Not prone to public displays of affection, I am amusedly surprised that I am totally un-self conscious. I take my leave, purchase my 'Hope Stone' and join the expectant audience finishing up the last of their coffee and cake.
‘I was a busy mom. Moms, we always put our health last,’ Laurie begins. ‘I was caught up in a busy life, not listening to the subtle hints that my body was giving me. I was so busy that I couldn’t have heard God even if he was shouting at me. But then my body decided it had had enough and that it was going to make me listen to it whether I liked it or not’.
Laurie proceeds in true captivating style to tell the details of her life-changing first seizure that took place at her Arizona home while she dozed off on the family couch.
‘I was shockingly awoken by a very loud BANG in my head. It was as if someone had implanted a bass electric guitar string into the left side of my head and plucked it viciously with the amplifier turned all the way up… I felt like I was being twisted in half. My legs violently were forced to the left while from my waist up I was yanked to the right. I felt my face was being forced into the back of the couch. I thought someone must have broken in to the house and was trying to suffocate me. I couldn’t move. I thought I was going to die’.
Unbelievably, Laurie was told at her first consultation that she was just overworked and needed to rest. It was only after further advice from those closer to her that she went in for a second opinion. Within two weeks she was booked for brain surgery and later chemotherapy ensued.
As Laurie delivered her talk and answered questions it was evident that two major forces had had a major influence on her recovery. Her daughter was one, and God was the other. Add to that a wry sense of humour that she admits has helped her through her adversity – ‘Popeye has spinach, I have giggling’ she has written in her book. But most of all Laurie is grateful for her amazing support system of friends and medical team members as well as every little gesture –sometimes from total strangers - that were as if guardian angels sent to ease her ordeal.
‘As strange as it may seem but I have come to think of my cancer as a gift. Everything I believe happens for a reason and look where mine has brought me,’ she says as she sweeps her hand over the misty-eyed crowd, and her gaze lingers briefly on the shimmering waters of Abu Dhabi, a long way away from home.
Two hours later, after she has signed her book and hugged the guests again as they said their thank you and goodbyes, Laurie and I finally get to sit down for a brief chat. She seems to have not lost one iota of her energy and looks totally glam. It’s as if there were an invisible magic reservoir of energy she alone is privy to. As we help ourselves at the salad bar and then ask for coffee – her favorite beverage by the way – I remark how absolutely courageous she is and ask whether she has always been this way and how much she has been altered by her condition.
‘When you’re told you have cancer and you have a bit of time to absorb the news, it leaves you with two choices really. You either give in to it and accept your fate or you decide to fight back and give as good as you get. There is no wrong or right way. But I chose to fight because I wanted to be there for my sixteen-year-old daughter who I love most in the world. I remember telling the doctors that whatever they had to do they should do because I was determined to see her graduate. Not only did I do that but I am now a grandmother to two adorable children’.
‘Of course there were some really tough and some low times particularly when I lost my hair but the point is that I came through. I now find that my colours are brighter. I have learnt to take things in my stride– although not as slow as I ought to – and I have learnt that human kindness and decency do exist. I also learned to find peace in prayer’.
‘But cancer does change everything including those around you; including friendships you thought you’d have for life. It does happen and most times it’s because people don’t know how to cope with the illness and so they just stay away. It’s not because they are bad but it’s because they genuinely cannot understand what you are going through’.
‘And writing,’ I interject, ‘Did you ever think you’d ever author a book? And was it hard re-living the events as you wrote them?’
‘Never in a million years,’ she laughs out loud with the twinkle back in her eye, ‘I never had the time to read before because I was always so busy. The book was birthed through talking to people about my experience and answering their questions and letting them know you can come out the other side. ‘Cancer’ is just a term; it doesn’t define who you are. I am lucky that my family were constantly pushing me to write down my thoughts and my husband, David, has even written the Foreword. It hasn’t stopped though, and now they want me to write another’.
‘In a way, writing this book has been cathartic in a sense. Because I found that there were certain emotions I hadn’t had time to deal with as I was going through my treatment and that still needed to be addressed. Writing helped me do that’.
As we finish up and I walk with Laurie to the car park, I am reluctant for our meeting to end. I have loved being around such a positive hope-driven woman inspired by her Faith. Charismatic, pragmatic, and who knows a thing or two about horoscopes – she’s a Scorpio by the way. An adventurous, compassionate, courageous woman who is isn’t bitterly stuck on ‘why’ this happened to her but is actively engaged with ‘how’ it can enrich others’ lives. A hero!
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