A life-saving attitude

In 1987, a doctor informed second-grade teacher Laurie Waldo that she had bone cancer. In 2006, she was told she had a malignant tumor in her right breast. In 2019, Waldo learned she had a chest wall recurrence of breast cancer following her mastectomy. That same year, she was told she now had cancer in her left breast.

Four battles fought. Four battles won. An immeasurable journey.

Her first surgeon, Dempsey Springfield, M.D., a former orthopaedic surgeon with the UF College of Medicine, wondered how she could persevere through the procedures and push through her darkest days, but it was their “teamwork” that made the difference.

When Waldo was first told she had bone cancer in her right arm, Springfield revealed that her chances were 50/50. When she asked what she needed to do to be on the right side of the odds, he said it was going to be her attitude.

“I cried with my family that night and woke up the next morning and decided, I’m a fighter,” Waldo said. “I’m a competitor. We’re going to beat this thing. And I realized telling me to keep a positive attitude was probably the most awesome thing that a doctor could ever say to a patient.

The First of Many Miracles

Laurie Waldo windsurfing.

Waldo traces the beginning of her cancer fight back to the North American Windsurfing Championship. Both she and her new husband Doug were competitive windsurfers, and they were training together when she noticed recurring pain in her right arm when she pulled herself out of the water and onto her board. Believing she would only require some physical therapy, she got an X-ray at a local clinic in Gainesville. Her world started spinning when the doctor sat down on his stool, wheeled over to her and informed her that she had a tumor in her bone and would need to be seen at UF Health immediately.

Within the week, Waldo was at the UF Health Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine Institute meeting Springfield. From there, she underwent a biopsy surgery, which revealed that she had bone cancer in her right proximal humerus.

To combat the cancer, Waldo would undergo two rounds of inpatient chemotherapy to weaken the cancer as much as possible before the tumor would be removed during surgery. In the midst of being hooked up and fully prepped for her first dosage of chemotherapy, former UF Health oncologist and UF College of Medicine executive associate dean Warren E. Ross, M.D., came into her room and announced he was making a change to her treatment plan due to the results of an additional pathology report.

Waldo’s cancer was different than what her team originally thought. It wasn’t osteosarcoma, but a malignant fibrous histiocytoma. Therefore, she required a different and “better” regimen of chemotherapy. The good news — the new chemo treatment could be administered on an outpatient basis. The even better news — the previous medication would have made Waldo infertile, so she was spared in the nick of time.

The two rounds of chemotherapy Waldo underwent were intense. Her husband would drive her to her appointments and sit with her and then drive her to her parents’ house in Melrose where she would spend about two weeks. Because her father was retired, he could be with her at all times. When she recovered from a treatment, she would return to Gainesville to be with her husband.

Before going into surgery, the doctors told Waldo that depending on what they observed when they opened her arm, she might receive an allograft surgery that would use a cadaver bone from a bone bank. At the time, Shands was one of only three hospitals in the nation that had a bone bank. Her other option: amputation. She was put under anesthesia not knowing whether she would wake up with her arm or not.

When Waldo awakened from surgery, she was in a body cast with her arm raised over her head as if she was “the Statue of Liberty.” She remained in the full cast for a little over three months and then had to undergo four more rounds of chemotherapy.

Waldo was in her cast from April until the beginning of July.

However, before her fifth treatment, Waldo confessed to her mother that she could not do it anymore. The process was too brutal, and she would not wish it on her worst enemy, she said. Her mother had her meet with a psychiatrist. At that appointment, her flame to fight was reignited.

“I discovered that I really did want to live,” Waldo said. “Two more courses of chemo should not stand in the way of the rest of my life.”

For a year after her chemo, Robert Vander Griend, M.D., an associate professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at the UF College of Medicine, was her physician. He finally informed her that she could begin sailing again, so she and her husband started prepping for another North American Windsurfing Championship. During the competition, she tore her rotator cuff, a career-ending injury. The latest setback didn’t get Waldo down because she had two arms, and everything was looking up at that point, she said.

When Laurie and Doug were ready to have a child, they tried for 10 years and had four miscarriages. Finally, Waldo was able to carry to term and gave birth to a healthy baby boy, Christopher.

“I was able to hold him in two arms because of being here in Gainesville and having Shands,” she said.

The Unimaginable

After having cancer, Waldo was unable to trust her body, she said. For every ache and pain, she would see her doctor to make sure everything was OK.

The unthinkable occurred when she noticed a lump in her right breast. After a mammogram, an ultrasound and a needle biopsy, she discovered she had a malignant tumor. The results of an MRI persuaded Waldo to opt for a mastectomy, which was performed by Edward Copeland, M.D., distinguished professor in the division of general surgery at the UF College of Medicine.

Not wanting to have any regrets, Waldo underwent additional rounds of chemotherapy treatments. Life went back to normal, and for 13 years, everything seemed wonderful.

Then, during a routine mammogram, Waldo’s results concerned her doctor, Heather E. Harrell, M.D., distinguished professor of medicine and Associate Dean of Medical Education at the UF College of Medicine. In her chest wall on the right side where she had her mastectomy, cancer was once again present. Christiana Shaw, M.D., an associate professor in the division of general surgery at the UF College of Medicine, performed surgery to fully remove the cancer. This time, she required 30 days of radiation.

Starting in April of 2019, Waldo received her care at the UF Health Medical Oncology – Davis Cancer Pavilion. She said the three technicians who administered her treatments were “beyond phenomenal” and “very upbeat” each time she went in.

Despite that, Waldo confessed that she cried every day. Even though she understood the radiation was killing the cancer in her chest wall, she was terrified it would lead to cancer somewhere else. Eventually, her husband started driving her to her appointments because she feared she would turn the car around and not go.

Unfortunately, the unimaginable continued. That July, another mammogram resulted in another biopsy, which turned out to be another cancerous tumor — this time in her left breast. Lisa Spiguel, M.D., an associate professor in the division of general surgery at the UF College of Medicine, performed Waldo’s second mastectomy. Acknowledging blessings whenever she could, the cancer was caught early, so she did not require further treatment.

Waldo with husband, Doug, and son, Christopher.

Sharing Her Story

Speaking about her journey aided Waldo in the healing process. For many years, Dr. Vander Griend invited her to talk to his medical students. They would have the opportunity to ask her questions about her perspective as a patient, which she described as an “awesome experience,” and Vander Griend would report that it was an “equally awesome experience for his students.”

“Telling my story helps,” Waldo said. “It helps me to feel like I can give something back, and it just helps bring some awareness.”

The former teacher believes she has always been a positive person, but after she heard Springfield’s advice after her very first biopsy that her chances of survival depended on her attitude, she has become even more optimistic and outspoken.

Waldo attributes a big part of her resilience to her support system — her husband, parents, sisters and even her students’ parents. She said she has always been close to her sisters, but she has been blessed to have them in Gainesville. Going through this experience together has transformed their bond into a special relationship that she says is rare.

Due to the fragility and unpredictability of life, Laurie and Doug chose to retire earlier than they had originally planned.

“We’re not guaranteed tomorrow,” she said. “We need to live each day to its fullest and focus on ourselves. And for me, focus on myself and living as healthy a life as I can.”