Young Oklahoma City woman's cancer brings 'bizarre' blessings — and so many reasons to believe

by Jaclyn Cosgrove Published: December 29, 2013
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It started with a cough, a persistent and seemingly normal cough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In two years, that cough would represent the beginning of what would feel like the end.

Lorelei Decker would lie in her hospital bed as her body shut down, and for the first time, she would think death was near.

She always knew death was a possibility — but for several months, she had experienced a life she never dreamed cancer would bring.

A family that loves her, mixed with a community that supported her, and an NBA team that inspired her. She had become Oklahoma City's favorite Thunder girl, all because of the bizarre blessing that cancer had been.

Decker beat the odds over and over again, telling doctors to believe in miracles.

Her story starts unexpectedly. Her story starts with a funeral that saved her life.

Her friend's sister had died from septic shock, brought on during her battle with leukemia. Decker would later learn that up to 50 percent of the people who develop septic shock — when an overwhelming infection leads to life-threateningly low blood pressure — don't make it. She would think back to this girl and that statistic.

At the funeral, Decker couldn't stop coughing, and she was so embarrassed and angry with herself that she went to the doctor. Her family demanded real answers.

Friday, Jan. 27, 2012, would mark Decker's last day as a “normal” 17-year-old girl.

A self-identified nerd, she was a senior in high school, busy taking advanced placement classes, playing on the Putnam City North High School golf team and loving the Oklahoma City Thunder and her boyfriend, Brad Ross, the captain of the school's football team before he graduated.

She was preparing for graduation and her first semester at Oklahoma State University. A four-inch tumor sitting in her chest derailed every plan she had.

“I would say my junior year, to this day, has been the best year of my life,” Decker said. “Because Bradley was still a senior, and I still didn't have cancer.”

They had no idea the monster they were facing.

It was a Saturday, and the only option the Deckers had was either the emergency room or an after-hours clinic. At the clinic, Decker's mother, Andrea Decker, had a “mom hunch.”

Andrea Decker felt like her daughter might have pneumonia again, and she insisted on a chest X-ray. The doctor disagreed. The mother persisted and won.

About six months before, Lorelei had developed pneumonia and had a chest X-ray done at a different medical office. If that X-ray had been sent to a radiologist, then this moment in January 2012 likely wouldn't have happened. Because a radiologist might have noticed the beginnings of cancer.

“In retrospect, we look back, and we go, ‘Wow, we missed so many signs,'” Andrea Decker said. “So many doctors missed so many signs.”

“I did have pneumonia,” Lorelei adds. “But I also had cancer, which was compromising my immune system, which is why I had pneumonia.”

Instead of a diagnosis, Lorelei was treated for pneumonia using steroids — which is sometimes used to treat Hodgkin's lymphoma — until she finally ended up in the after-hours clinic in January.

That day, a pale-faced doctor came into the room after the X-ray. He wanted to compare it to the X-ray from July. He told the Deckers that Lorelei had a “large mass” and they should probably get it checked.

After they paid their $30 copay, a nurse came into the room.

“The doctor told you about the tumor, right?” the nurse asked.

No, the doctor hadn't said that exactly.

 

 

This moment started the Deckers on a rapid path in search of more answers. The following Tuesday, they found out Lorelei had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of lymph tissue. It's tissue that's found in the lymph nodes, spleen, liver and bone marrow, among other places in the body.

Among the medical community, it's often referred to as “easy cancer” because of how well it responds to treatment.

Even though she had a tumor a little larger than a grapefruit sitting in her chest, there was hope.

 

 

 

 

 

Lorelei did not want a “wish.”

“Make-A-Wish is for children who are dying, and I'm not going to die,” she told her mother.

Andrea nominated her anyway. Another “mom hunch,” maybe.

If Andrea had waited any longer to nominate her, Lorelei would have been too sick — too sick to make a wish that would lay the foundation for Lorelei to shine and inspire.

 

 

At first, Lorelei wanted her wish to be something that would give back to others. One of her ideas was to donate a golf shed to Putnam City North that would have a golf simulator, a putting area and lockers. And it wasn't just for her.

Her golf coach, Thomas Jedlicka, or “Coach Jed” for short, was the first person outside of her immediate family that Lorelei told when she was diagnosed.

He had survived cancer once already but was suffering again from the disease. His cancer was back, and he and Lorelei were going through chemotherapy at the same time.

 

 

 

But the Make-A-Wish representative told her, “This wish is for you. What is something you want, just for you?”

I want to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder, Lorelei finally decided.

For Lorelei, the Thunder was quickly becoming her escape from cancer. Her motto was quickly becoming, “Cancer never stops, but sometimes there are Thunder games.”

She thought this would be a way she could meet the team she loved. She didn't know it would reach beyond that.

 

 

 

The night before her “wish day,” the Deckers went to Mickey Mantle's, an upscale restaurant in Bricktown. Kevin Durant was there.

Andrea Decker approached his table and placed her hand on the Thunder star's shoulder.

“This girl is going to be your coach tomorrow!” she told him.

Durant had no idea what they were talking about. The next day at practice, he greeted Lorelei, “Hey friend.”

It was the beginning of an actual friendship.

 

 

That day, Lorelei spent almost two hours with the Thunder coaches in their strategy meeting. That night, they would play the Sacramento Kings. They watched tape from previous Thunder-Kings games and took notes.

“I'm always watching, and I just think we really succeed whenever we get rebounds, and we drive the ball,” she told them.

 

The coaches fell in love with her.

“I know when I met Lorelei, I saw somebody that was a fighter,” Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said. “I saw somebody that I wanted to help and get involved (with), be a part of her life. With all of our guys, she's a big part of our thoughts every day.”

 

 

During practice, Lorelei played against James Harden in a free throw contest. It didn't take long for the other players to join in cheering her on. Russell Westbrook helped position the 5-foot-3 girl, scooting her up.

“It's not that you're not strong,” he told her. “You're just a little short.”

 

 

"Being an NBA coach and fighting cancer is exhausting work."

 

Lorelei would need this day for her spirits. Bad news was on its way.

At first, it seemed like Lorelei's tumor was responding to chemo.

In early May, it seemed like things were heading in the right direction. Even though Lorelei still had a large mass in her chest, a PET scan showed that only 10 percent was active cancer.

 

 

 

 

The University of Oklahoma women's golf team visited her while she was at the hospital. And sunflowers she planted were starting to bloom.

On June 28, Andrea wrote in the family's blog, “We were able to enroll Lorelei in Classes at OSU yesterday. She'll move into her dorm on August 12. She'll travel the road between Stillwater and ProCure in OKC every day for the early days of her life in Stilly, but once done with radiation I'm afraid I'll rarely see her. My baby is almost out of the nest.”

And in July, Lorelei would ring a bell at the hospital, representing the last of her prescribed chemotherapy.

It would feel like a day to celebrate.

 

 

Eight days later, she would find out that her cancer was resistant to chemotherapy. Her chances of survival would decrease.

“It shook us to our core,” Andrea wrote in their blog. “Lorelei admitted that it had never once crossed her mind that she might not beat this cancer. She saw the cancer as being very inconvenient but not really life threatening. That changed yesterday for her. Thankfully her boyfriend Bradley was with her to hold her as she cried. They both have a lot of praying to do.”

Lorelei found out she had refractory and fast-growing bulky Hodgkin lymphoma. It had developed a resistance to the chemo that she had undergone for six months.

 

 

 

 

The days the family expected to move Lorelei into her dorm at OSU, she started R-ICE chemo, a type of chemo that was harshest for Lorelei.

She threw up so badly she was dry heaving. Her mouth, throat and digestive system were covered in sores. Because of the sores, Lorelei vomited blood. She vomited so often that the blood vessels in her eyes were popping. Doctors ran an MRI and an X-ray because they thought she had broken ribs.

Her family put Velcro on the back of her cellphone because it was too heavy for her to hold. They stuck it to her hospital bed's table so she could watch “Sons of Anarchy” on Netflix.

Her 18th birthday came in the midst of this.

Andrea hadn't made any plans for Lorelei's birthday, Aug. 19. It looked like all Lorelei would have to look forward to would be a second round of R-ICE chemo.

Until it wasn't. Kevin Durant invited Lorelei to the movie premiere for “Thunderstruck.”

“Isn't it silly that I ever worried about making her birthday special? I should have known our wonderful OKC Thunder would take care of Coach Lorelei!” Andrea wrote later in the family's blog.

 

 

After she finished chemo, Lorelei's doctors wanted to try a stem cell transplant, using her own stem cells. The hope was that her healthy stem cells would regenerate and kill off her cancer.

That didn't work.

The next step? Doctors would perform a stem cell transplant using stem cells from Lorelei's oldest sister, Hannah. It was a similar concept — use Hannah's healthy stem cells to replace Lorelei's sick ones. Lorelei would have Hannah's immune system, and thus, it would hopefully kill off her cancer.

Before the transplant, they had to put up an unexpected fight.

When Lorelei first started her journey with cancer, she had about 300 Twitter followers.

Since her wish, she has seen that number grow to more than 2,000.

When the family's insurance company told them it wouldn't cover the transplant from Hannah to Lorelei, the family took to Twitter. Andrea's job had been in social media, meaning she had quite the network as well.

The Decker parents and their children began posting tweets with the hashtag #ApproveLorelei.

Soon, hundreds joined them. And local media picked up the story.

 

 

 

 

Within a day, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma changed its mind.

“The big deal there is nothing new happened, so why did they deny in the first place?” Andrea said. “Because they could — because they knew some people are going to die before they fight.”

 

 

It wasn't like Lorelei had other choices. Doctors told her that this transplant was — and still is — her last treatment option. If Lorelei didn't have the stem cell transplant from Hannah, her chances at life were very, very slim.

Once Blue Cross approved the transplant, Hannah started the process of harvesting her stem cells.

 

 

 

It seems appropriate that the oldest sister was the match.

Hannah, the first of four Decker children, felt a connection with Lorelei the moment she arrived in the world.

“I remember her being a tiny child,” Hannah, who is almost six years older than Lorelei, said. “I adored her from the moment she was born.”

To Hannah, Lorelei will always be that 3-year-old girl running around in pigtails. On the nights when Lorelei couldn't sleep, Hannah would rub her back until she drifted off.

Since Lorelei was born, Hannah said she has been in awe of her little sister for the energy she brings to life.

For their family, cancer has been a “bizarre blessing.”

“Most of my family has said that,” she said. “It's obviously brought its own kind of hell, but it's also really helped us see what our world is and what everybody is in it for. You get a sort of clarity when you're dealing with something that's bigger than you.”

Lorelei remembers late July 2013 as the scariest time for her.

After almost two years of fighting, with treatment at five hospitals through the help of at least 28 doctors and more than 150 nurses, she was still dying. More than $2.2 million in medical care, and she was still dying.

She had received the transplant from Hannah's stem cells and seemed to be doing well — but then in late July, she went into septic shock.

“That's the closest I've ever been to death,” Lorelei said. “Cancer is an impending doom, but it's not a present doom — until you're in septic shock, and that doom is very present.”

As Andrea Decker watched her daughter shake and shiver with a high fever, she thought, “Here we are. We've cured cancer, and she's going to die from septic shock.”

 

 

 

They were at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, away from their support system in Oklahoma.

Andrea watched as medical staff squeezed bags and bags of medicine into Lorelei.

She put out a call on social media for prayers. She was desperate to get as many people as possible praying for her daughter.

Doctors aren't exactly sure why people suffering from septic shock recover. But Lorelei somehow did.

 

 

The next few weeks weren't easy, though. She suffered from a mysterious facial paralysis that eventually cleared up after she was treated with steroids.

 

 

The Deckers couldn't know that they were close to a victory, but it was coming. Lorelei was due for her ninth PET scan, which would tell them whether she had any active cancer.

It was her ninth PET scan in 21 months — and it had been 60 days since her transplant from Hannah.

 

 

 

Andrea wrote the night before the scan, “The previous eight have all glowed indicating active cancer. We've hoped and prayed before each and every one. We've had faith that each scan would be THE ONE to show she was finally in remission. But we've never yet heard the R word. This process has led to a pretty strong anxiety response. Pavlov's dog learned to salivate in fewer bell rings. So, we covet your prayers for extinguishing anxiety.”

Four days later, Lorelei was able to use the R word. The scan showed that she was in remission.

 

 

 

A few days later, she stood before a huddle of Thunder basketball players and told them the good news. Durant threw his arms in the air, and a smile spread across Westbrook's face. She hugged coach Brooks. And then she cut off the lime green bracelet she had given Brooks more than a year before.

“I had dreamt of that day forever,” Lorelei said. “I had dreamt of the day I was in remission, but I had dreamt of the day I told the Thunder I was in remission even more.”

 

 

 

When Lorelei first chose her wish — to be a Thunder coach for a day — she thought that would be it, a day with the Thunder.

She never imagined they would be alongside her and her family as they battled cancer.

She never imagined she would give Durant a pep talk after the Thunder lost in the 2013 playoffs.

Or that Westbrook would call her after he tore his meniscus during the playoffs. They would talk about how they were both in situations they couldn't control. They would find strength in their friendship.

She never imagined that beyond her family, she would have a community of support that would include the Oklahoma City Thunder and their fans.

It's Dec. 14, and Lorelei stands in her bedroom, holding a 4-inch miniature Thunder basketball, signed by Durant and Westbrook.

 

 

“This is how big my tumor was,” she says. “Kind of puts things in perspective.”

During the interview for this story, the question arises: “When is Bradley going to propose?”

Lorelei sighs.

“I don't know,” she says. “It could be today. It could be …”

Her father, Kevin Decker, starts to cluck like a chicken. He has been teasing Lorelei that Brad hasn't proposed yet — all the while knowing something she doesn't.

A few weeks earlier, Brad and Kevin had told Lorelei they were going to the house of Lorelei's older brother, Dustin, to move a couch. Instead, they went to the Starbuck's near the Kilpatrick Turnpike, and Brad asked if he could marry Lorelei.

And Kevin knows that Lorelei isn't far off in her guess.

That evening, Brad's father had asked Lorelei and Brad to give a speech at his company's Christmas party about Lorelei's journey with cancer. She spoke first and then gave Brad the microphone.

It was only a minute or so before his father handed Brad a small, blue ring box. Brad got down on one knee and asked Lorelei to make him the happiest man alive.

They were on a stage on the 50th floor of the Devon Tower. Overlooking the city Lorelei loves, a city that loves her back. She said yes.

 

 

 

Their wedding is scheduled for early August. She has a few guests on her list who can't make it before then.

“Whether or not the Thunder will be in the finals, we don't know,” Lorelei said. “But we can't schedule it in June because if they do go to the finals, then Coach Brooks can't come to my wedding. He's gotta be there.”

by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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