"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched -- they must be felt with the heart."
-- Helen Keller
Last school year, as a junior at Columbus High, Lauren Crane used that quote in a state essay contest to describe what she learned from helping her best friend, Becca Gross, and mother, Jane Crane, through their cancer journeys.
Lauren's entry was selected as the state winner among more than 41,800 students from 52 high schools in the 2013-14 Laws of Life Essay Contest sponsored by the Georgia Rotary Districts Character Education Program.
"With so many wonderful and heartfelt essays, it is always extremely difficult to select a top winner," said Susan Mason, the contest's director. "But Lauren's essay consistently rose to the top in all the rounds of judging.
"Her essay illustrated the Law of Life that she selected, and showed how -- through her thoughts and her actions -- she lived out the meaning of Helen Keller's saying.
"Her inspiring essay reminded the judges of what is truly important in life, and we all benefited from the reminder that simply being there for a family member or friend has immeasurable value."
In January 2013, Becca, then a sophomore at Columbus High, started having a sore jaw and numb lower lip. Stomach and back pain ensued.
"It was really weird," she said.
After several weeks of doctor appointments and medical tests, Becca was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, a fast-growing cancer.
"We had been trying to find out for so long," she said, "I think I was just happy that they knew what it was."
A tumor in her abdomen impeded one of her kidneys. At risk for renal failure, she was airlifted immediately to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston.
Becca texted the diagnosis to Lauren and their other best friend, Ashley Lollar. Becca told them, "I'm not going to die or anything, but I'm going to be flown up to Atlanta." She asked them to break the bad news to the rest of their friends.
"I wasn't really scared," Becca said. "I don't know why. I just let them strap me in and put me in the helicopter. I wanted to look out the window of the helicopter, but they wouldn't let me sit up."
Lauren didn't see Becca's text until she finished swimming practice that day. She read it in the parking lot. "And I just broke down," Lauren said. "I was kind of scared for her. I knew she was going to be OK the whole time, but for some reason I just cried."
Two days later, Becca's absence made a huge impact on the Christ Community Church youth group's ski trip.
"The entire trip, we were praying for Becca," Lauren said. "We cried a lot. We all experienced it with her."
Two weeks after Becca was hospitalized, she finally was healthy enough to have visitors. Lauren and Ashley got permission from their parents to miss school and join Brent Dumler, a pastor at Christ Community Church, on the drive to Atlanta to visit Becca.
Lauren and Becca don't remember the conversation they had then -- but that's the point, they learned.
"It's never the words you say," Lauren said. "It's just like the actions and the presence."
Becca added, "I could tell they all were really my friends even if they would just come and sit. I knew it wasn't very fun for them because I couldn't go do anything, but they just let me know they still wanted to be around me and be my friend."
The tumor shrank from aggressive chemotherapy while Becca stayed in the hospital for a month. She returned home for a few weeks to allow her blood count to recover before going back to Atlanta about five more times for further chemo.
Tests showed her cancer hadn't spread. By late spring, she was told she could be treated in Columbus. But being home meant being more active and around more people, and that meant getting sick more often because the chemo compromised her immune system. All of which meant more hospitalization, but at least it was in Columbus, where her friends could visit her more.
"We just talked about normal stuff," Lauren said, "like we would if we were just hanging out."
Lauren visited maybe once or twice each week when Becca was healthy enough. They texted each other every day. School and friends and gossip were the main topics.
"I didn't want to focus on the cancer," Lauren said.
And Becca was cool with that.
"I could tell they weren't going to say anything about it unless I started it, and I didn't need it," she said. "So it was a chance to get away from all the doctor stuff."
Becca had her final chemo session the week after she started her junior year back at Columbus High last August. Except for periodically getting her blood drawn to ensure she is cancer-free, Becca said with a smile, "I'm completely clear now."
Faith and friends
Becca insists she never gave up hope.
"Everyone around me was always so positive," she said. "I guess God just gave me that spirit. All my friends, especially Lauren, did a good job. When I was with them, we just kind of forgot about it, forgot that I was sick. We just pretended like everything was normal."
Lauren also credits her faith and friends with staying strong for Becca.
"I never really was scared, though," she said. "I knew everything was going to be OK. I knew that God was taking care of her and that everything would work out in the end. Our entire friendship group just got stronger from that."
Along with Madi McMichael and Ashley, they went to a Mumford & Sons concert in September at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta to celebrate the end of Becca's chemo treatments. Becca had been in the hospital that week, "so I had to beg my doctor to let me go," she said.
During the concert, Becca felt too lightheaded to keep standing, "but it was worth it," she said. Indeed, her health rallied enough for her to return to school the next day.
Friends were good medicine.
"Watching them deal with me," Becca said, "now I feel like if I ever have a friend go through something like that, I'll know I won't have to say a lot. I can just be there. What someone feels is more important than what someone hears."
Lauren added, "Friendships are just really valuable. What you put in is what you get out. Just because she was going through a sickness and was far away from Columbus, I wasn't going to stop talking to her."
Becca realized, "Some friends can be friends only if they see each other every day. But even if we didn't talk for a couple weeks, we were still fine. That taught me that we really got friendship."
Two months after that concert, Lauren's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Jane noticed lymph nodes on the right side of her neck were swollen, but she didn't have a sore throat or a sinus infection.
"My doctors agreed that had nothing to do with the breast cancer," Jane said, "but I thought there could be something going on there to have such a big lymph reaction on one side."
She was overdue for her annual mammogram anyway, so she went to her doctor.
"In my mind, the Lord got me there," Jane said. "It was on my to-do list, but it was on the back burner. I probably wouldn't have gone until spring."
A series of tests confirmed her suspicion. She had surgery to remove the Stage 2 cancer, followed by five months of chemotherapy. Next, was radiation for 6½ weeks.
Coming so soon after Becca's battle, Jane said, "it was remarkable that Lauren's best friend had just gone through this and now I would be going through a different version."
But as she had faith in her healthy outcome, Jane also believed in her daughter's ability to rise above the concern.
"I knew Lauren's strong," Jane said. "She can handle it."
She also could support her mother.
"I remember her telling me, 'You're going to be all right,'" Jane said.
"It didn't really hit me," Lauren said. "Once I realized the fact that my mom had cancer, I hate to say that I was OK with it, but I wasn't afraid. I didn't cry like I did with Becca, because I guess she didn't seem sick at all. I kind of knew what to expect this round, so I wasn't scared."
Lauren knew when her mother was getting sick from the chemo because they share a bathroom in their 13th Street home.
"She was very sensitive to when I didn't feel well," Jane said. "She would reach out to me. She was very sweet."
Lauren didn't waste time wondering why her best friend and mother were diagnosed with cancer around the same time.
"I realize how much more common cancer is than I originally thought," she said. "It just opened my eyes up. It's so random. Nobody understands how it happens or why. It just happens."
But she did use what she learned from being beside Becca to comfort her mother.
"There were days I needed to be there for her," Lauren said, "but other days I needed to back off and let her breathe a little or rest."
Cancer didn't change their relationship, they said; it affirmed it.
"I knew Lauren would listen," Jane said, "and it would mean something."
"We've always just been close," Lauren said.
The daughter felt helpless seeing her mother cry from the overwhelming nausea caused by her chemotherapy.
"I just couldn't really do anything but be there," Lauren said.
But she could and did fill the gap in chores her ailing mother couldn't perform. She picked up her brother from school and drove him to baseball practice. She even cleaned around the house -- without being asked.
"That was really amazing," Jane said, sharing a laugh with her daughter. "It showed a level of maturity and caring."
Grateful for the chance to pay forward Lauren's support, Becca gave Jane tips to combat her nausea and loss of hair.
"I felt good that I was able to help her," Becca said.
Jane looked at Lauren and Becca and declared, "I think God is really great at taking a difficult situation or a horrible situation, and it doesn't change the difficulty or the horribleness of it, but He can bring good things out of it."
And thanks to Lauren's state-winning essay, the result of that faith is documented.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkRiceLE