Lauren Butler's Incredible Story
By Jerry Soifer
As she rose through the rank of youth soccer, playing on the Legends team which won the Under-13 national championships, Lauren Butler modeled her game after Abby Wambach.
The U.S. star used her 5-foot 11-inch height to control the ball with her head and score off corner kicks. Butler, who reached 5-8 by junior high school, used her height in a similar manner. Butler was seemingly bound for a college scholarship.
Then, a 2 1/2 year battle with leukemia changed Butler's direction in life. She graduated from Corona High School in 2018. Instead of seeking to play intercollegiate soccer, she enrolled at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix She will play the less demanding club soccer.
because it offers the quickest path to a career as a pediatric oncology nurse.
The nurses and doctors at Kaiser-Permanente Hospital in Fontana who cared for her during her illness became her role models. the people she wants to emulate in her career.
"They made me laugh," said Butler. "Most of all they cared about me. They couldn't wait for me to get better."
Butler had her eyes opened to the vulnerability of children as ailing boys and girls with diseases other than cancer were brought into the pediatric oncology ward when their own wards had too many patients. She wants to help care for children in her career.
Butler, now 18, laughed when nurses told her about her reaction during her first spinal tap. Music is used to calm a sedated patient during the procedure, according to Dr. Anne Melendez, a pediatrician from Alameda, CA.
Butler was sedated and curled up on the table awaiting the procedure when Taylor Swift music was played on the loudspeaker. Nurses told Butler
they had to turn off the sound because she appeared to be gyrating to the music.
After countless chemotherapy sessions, MRIs and spinal taps, Butler was declared in remission on May 5, 2017. She stayed in remission through her senior season, 2017-18, but her shoulders, weakened by all the steroids she took, gave out, cutting short her play. She's facing replacement surgery on her left shoulder before the age of 20. Doctors were able to keep the cancer from spreading to her spine.
Butler, 18, touched thousands of people with her pluck during
her battle with leukemia. The Corona-Norco region of the American Youth Soccer Organization which changed the name of its Commissioners Cup tournament to the Lauren Butler Cup because of the devotion she showed to
the sport during a 2 1/2 year battle with leukemia.
"It was very fitting for what Lauren was going through at the time," said Pat Gragnano, the AYSO official who nominated her for the honor.
"She got her start in AYSO...Her family had a great involvement in the region."
Butler was a speaker at Corona's Relay for Life, a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society.
"Lauren is an inspiration," said Corona Santiago High graduate Katie Wong, now at UC Riverside. "High school is the toughest years of your life. You go through a lot of changes. You have a blood disease, cancer, thrown at you. It adds more stress to your life. She stuck with soccer through the hard times. It's heartbreaking, the toll cancer took on her life."
Wong understands Butler's love for the game. "It will forever be the bond between your heart and the darn soccer ball," Wong said.
"I loved battling and the competitiveness," said Butler. "Every time I did something well, I got this rush of excitement."
"She had the height advantage on everyone on the field," said Wong of Butler. "You had to mark her. She had the skill. She had the motivation to get the ball in the back of the net."
Butler started playing soccer at age 4. The second of four children, her parents signed her up because her older brother was playing football
and her father, Tom, had played all sports during his childhood. She committed herself to soccer. Her goal was to become a scholarship player.
Warning signs of cancer appeared during her freshman year at Corona High School. She collapsed during a game in December 2014. Doctors tapped into
the bone marrow of her pelvis at the start of 2015. They found that 92 percent of the bone marrow was cancerous. Doctors told her the cancer probably started in April 2014.
Her immune system was weakened severely because only eight percent of her white blood cells were normal and capable of fighting infection and outside agents, said Sharon Steingass, a registered nurse who is the director of operations at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Steingass added, "The patient was at high risk for infection since she had very few normal cells. Most patients with acute leukemia will not survive."
Butler was 13 when she had braces put in her mouth so her teeth so would be straight for the rest of her life. She was 15 when she had the braces removed so doctors could save her life. The braces were taken out because the metal would interfere with the many MRIs she faced.
Lauren was admitted to Kaiser Hospital in Fontana to begin two weeks of intense chemotherapy. Two wheelchairs full of stuffed animals and other goodies to brighten her spirits were brought to her room. Her parents brought her outside food so she didn't have to digest bland hospital food.
Her parents, Tom and Tami, said they never thought they were going to lose their daughter, one of their four children.
At first, Butler didn't comprehend the gravity of her condition.
She, her mother, and Sandra Cowan, her assigned teacher, were sitting at the dining room table, talking about the leukemia.
"You mean I have cancer, I could die," exclaimed Lauren.
Cowan said, "That was the defining moment for me."
There were other times when Cowan was working with Butler, the teen-ager would have to leave the room to throw up in the bathroom. She would come back and resume her school work.
Through the ordeal, even losing her hair to chemotherapy, Lauren never became a hermit. Lauren changed her teacher's outlook.
"If someone so young could handle something so difficult to gracefully, then I could handle anything," said Cowan. "Lauren is one of my favorite humans on this planet,"
She couldn't play but cancer couldn't keep her from her commitment to her Chino-based Legends youth team. She had played on the Legends team that won the U.S. Soccer national
championships in the Under 13 age group in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2013.
Her team took second in the nationals in Baltimore in 2014.
In 2015, she had lost her hair. She was in the middle of treatment. Still, she and her father flew to Tulsa, Okla., so she could stand on the sidelines while the Legends won the nationals in the Under 15 age group.
The Legends repaid her devotion by putting her jersey with No. 14 in a frame and giving it to her to hang in her South Corona home.
The most difficult time came in September 2015. She suffered a toxic reaction to methotrexate, a drug used in chemotherapy. Her speech, her memory and her agility were affected but not her desire to play soccer. Nurses helped her regain her ability to walk and talk. Cowan said that was the scariest time.
It was also the time when Butler was touched the most by the concern of the nurses and doctors at Kaiser.
When she was well enough, her parents took her home to Corona. She greeted her two dogs. Then she put on her indoor soccer shoes and went outside to try to dribble the ball. She did not do well.
"I wanted to be back on the field so bad," she said. "Anything to be back on the field."
Lauren missed most of her freshman and sophomore years of high school play. She said she begged Corona coach Michelle Mason to put her in the game at the end of her sophomore season.
Mason said, "Lauren was as much a part of the team as she could be during her treatment."
Butler earned four varsity letters on the Corona High soccer team but did not sign a letter of intent for a college scholarship. Colleges remained interested in having her come out for the team or she could have played at a community college. Her priorities had changed.
Leukemia left its scars on Butler but made her a stronger person.
"It shaped me how I am today," she said. "I'm more driven but in a different direction."