PLEASANT HILL -- Lauren McCullough will celebrate her 21st birthday this month in style -- with a pink shot glass she bought to help usher her into adulthood.

After that, it will be the fight of her life to make it to 22.

McCullough, a former All-American swimmer who is a student at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, is in the middle of her second bout with Ewing sarcoma, a malignant cancer that preys on bone and soft tissue.

She thought she beat the disease earlier when she had 13 months of clean screenings after it attacked her left leg. It came back earlier this year, this time in her left lung, collapsing the lung but not her willingness to fight on.

"I've never really had bad things happen to me," McCullough said. "Before this I guess it had been a relatively boring life. Now that I have it again, there's no point in dwelling on it. You have to adapt."

McCullough was first diagnosed with the disease after she had been named athlete of the year at Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove.

"I was probably the buffest girl on campus," McCullough said. "Who gets cancer at that age?"

When she looked into it and saw the staggering number of children and young adults afflicted by cancer, the answer prompted her to action even as she tried to fight off a possible death sentence. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for Ewing sarcoma is 15 to 30 percent.


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"I decided I want people to be aware, really aware, of early childhood cancer," she said. "I'm making that the purpose of my being on this Earth. People think 'It will never happen to anyone I know.' I didn't know anyone who had until I got this the first time."

McCullough began writing a blog -- thenotdyinggirl.com -- about her experiences with chemotherapy and radiation treatment, chronicling her emotional ups and downs.

Word got out. Two athletic counselors at DVC, Jamie Bailey and Terry Armstrong, heard McCullough expressing hopes that she could expand awareness of Ewing sarcoma. Armstrong, the club adviser for Viking Lacrosse, brought it up to the team.

"Seriously, before I could even ask the question, they were saying we've got to do something," Armstrong said. "They were all for getting involved."

Armstrong's son, Mathias, is a part of Viking Lacrosse, and he did much of the legwork for a Nov. 25 benefit lacrosse match against Santa Rosa Junior College, at which McCullough was the featured guest. The event yielded $1,219 in donations for the American Cancer Society.

Two days after the lacrosse benefit, McCullough was back in the hospital for her next round of chemotherapy. Between the chemo and two days of hydration, she was there 100 hours. She's home again, but with an unwelcome visitor. She has what she calls a "numb spot" on her left side.

"It makes me look like I have half a set of love handles," McCullough said. "The doctors don't know what it is. I feel good, but this gives me more worries. I can deal with the known. It's the unknown I have a problem with."

Brenda Smart, one of McCullough's club and high school swim coaches, said the swimmer is approaching the battle with cancer the way she'd approach any athletic challenge.

"I've known her probably 10 years, and that's just the way she is," Smart said. "She's very competitive, very race-driven. She will do anything she can to win. That part of her personality has always been there.

"The competition is her against the cancer."

McCullough's first bout with Ewing sarcoma came a week after she'd graduated high school. She went to Hawaii for a week, but by the time she came home, her left leg had swollen to the point where she could barely walk. Two weeks later she had her first chemotherapy. Nine months later the cancer in her leg was gone.

Twelve months later, her parents, Deanne and John, family and friends gathered with her as she celebrated one year being cancer-free, but month 13 would quash that elation. She was able to swim well enough in the conference meet that she qualified for the state meet. But as the April 25 meet closed in, so did nasty pain in her chest.

"During the conference meet, I had no clue, no pain,'' McCullough said. "But the day before we left for the state meet in Huntington Beach, it came suddenly. It was incredibly hard to breathe. I knew it wasn't worth the risk (to swim). It turned out my left lung had collapsed. You work hard to get `swimmer lungs.' I'm fortunate as a swimmer that my right lung is really strong."

McCullough, who also wrestled in high school, credits her athleticism with getting her through the first battle with Ewing sarcoma and is counting on it to do the same in Round 2, although the long-term prognosis is such that she's been told to "get my bucket list things done." Part of that is a trip to Las Vegas with friends and family just after Christmas to celebrate her 21st birthday, which is when the shot glass will get a little use.

"They haven't given me any time parameters, and while it could be a whole lot better, things could be worse. I'm mobile and I can kind of do things I want. If I go through the hard treatment and get through it, I think they'll find something to cure me and other kids.

"We haven't done anything to bring it on, we don't smoke or drink and we haven't damaged our livers. I've seen babies with cancer, though, and that is heartbreaking. We need a chance to have a life and not just spend life in a hospital.''

Tuesday profile

Name: Lauren McCullough
Age: 20 (turns 21 on Dec. 11)
Hometown: Elk Grove
Quote: "We need a chance to have a life and not just spend life in a hospital."