Laura Gillespie

It was Labor Day weekend, 2006, when I received the call from my youngest sister Laura, then just 25 years old. She had just returned from an urgent visit to the dermatologist at the pleading of her co-workers. The mole on the lower left side of her back that was there since childhood, had broken off and began bleeding. While the results of the biopsy would not be back for another week, it was highly suspicious for malignant melanoma. Trying to find every reason to have hope that it was benign, deep down I knew it wasn’t. After waiting it out for what seemed forever, one week later, the verdict was in. When the dermatologist called me from the waiting room to join Laura in the exam room, the nightmare began…

The pathology report confirmed the diagnosis in large, bold face lettering, jumping off the page. I still can’t figure out what was worse that day, Laura’s reaction, or my mom’s, when I had to call my parents with the dreadful news later that evening.

Before melanoma became the center of Laura’s life, she was, on the surface, a typical young adult woman trying to make her way in the world. She was the youngest of 4 girls, born and raised in the north suburbs of Pittsburgh. An honor student, she attended Pitt, worked at Little’s in Squirrel Hill, and lived in an apartment with friends. Undoubtedly, she was THE most hardcore Steeler fan of all Steeler fans! She was a triple threat with beauty, brains, and talent… and a biting wit to boot. My parents, sisters, and I often joked that she was a know-it-all who was good at everything! But little did I know that all this time, her real beauty shined from deep within. It wasn’t until we moved in together due to having to help care for her, did I truly get to know my baby sister and what she was made of. I thought I was there to help her, yet she ended up giving me so much more.

She never really had a decent break from melanoma and all the experimental treatments and invasive tests that she so bravely endured. Throughout the 4.5 years of battling this disease, I can’t even count how many clinical trials she participated in. Each one with its own set of weird, uncomfortable side effects. Not to mention all the surgeries. She never complained. Not once, ever. Not even during the 5+ grueling IL-2 treatments. Not even during the countless cyberknife procedures and brain surgery. UPMC Shadyside Hospital was our home away from home. It seemed that up until March 2010, there was hope that she would beat this thing. However, an MRI showed a lesion on her brain. Nothing can prepare you for that kind of blow. She lived with the brain metastasis for another 14 months. Even then, she was doing so well, that it seemed strange that it was so serious. It seemed there was still reason to believe she could beat this. Her team of doctors were always hopeful. It wasn’t until Mother’s Day 2011 that the rapid decline began. She was gone less than 48 hours later. That’s how fast it happened. In a way, it was a blessing how she had passed. Since it was her brain, and not her body that was filled with cancer, there wasn’t much pain or suffering in the end.

A little over a year later, it’s still so unreal. There is no way to express or describe the grief of losing her. There are no words strong enough to say how much she is missed. She was such a special, vibrant gal, that if you met her one time, you would never forget her. She had style, beauty, grace, intelligence, and loyalty like no other. Oh, and a wicked sense of humor unmatched by anyone else. She was also passionate about melanoma awareness, especially with her friends and family. While she was not one to sunbathe, she had some bad sunburns during childhood, and used a tanning booth a few times, as many of us have. But that’s all it takes. The thing about melanoma is that yes, it is curable IF you catch it early. If not, it spreads just like any other cancer. But unlike other cancers, there has been very little advancement in treatment. And last, but certainly not least, it is a cancer that affects the young. As a young person, it is hard to fathom that there is nothing but your entire life ahead of you. Little did Laura know that cancer would steal her future and ultimately her life. Perhaps if she was aware of the dangers of melanoma, and had not waited so long to see a dermatologist, she might still be here today.

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson