May 25, 2021

Baking her way to making a difference for brain tumor research

Laurie Bushman is a woman who was used to being on the go. She had finished a second master’s degree and just secured her dream job. But on October 25, 2018, Laurie had a seizure and landed in the emergency room in Dubuque, Iowa where doctors discovered a brain tumor in her right frontal lobe.

She was transferred 90 miles by ambulance to be seen by neurosurgeons at University Hospital, part of UW Hospitals and Clinics in Madison, Wisconsin. Two weeks later she had surgery to remove the tumor. And two weeks after that, she received the diagnoses: grade II Astrocytoma, a rare type of cancer that develops in the cells that surround and protect nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. She was only 39 - twenty years younger than most people who are diagnosed with this kind of cancer.

“I was so busy up until my seizure. It was literally like the saying ‘hitting a wall,’” she says when reflecting upon her diagnosis. “Everything stopped...radio silence. That was the worst part. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

She took comfort anticipating that she would be busy again as she focused on recovering from the “typical” cancer treatments - chemotherapy and radiation. But instead, Laurie and her radiation oncologist Dr. Steven Howard decided that a wait-and-see approach with periodic MRIs would be the best option. The tumor’s location in the middle of the part of her brain that controls speech meant that additional treatment would impact her ability to communicate with her husband, children, grandchildren and many friends– one of the greatest joys of Laurie’s life. The inevitable collateral damage that would be caused by additional treatment greatly outweighed the benefits.

“It's a strange thing for me. I always feel the need to take action in some way and work toward a solution,” and as she says: “I had to learn to have patience knowing that I had the best people on my care team, and that sometimes doing nothing is doing something.”

She had to learn to slow down. The surgery caused aphasia which makes it difficult for Laurie to get her thoughts out as quickly and fluidly as she used to, and she needs extra time to process information. Following surgery she also lost function on the entire left side of her body and developed severe sensitivity to light. But Laurie is resilient. She worked on regaining her strength, balance and coordination over this past year and achieved her goal of doing a 52-mile round trip bike ride with her husband on a trail near Dubuque.

Laurie takes action thru Race for Research

Discovering UW Carbone’s Race for Research, the UW Carbone Cancer Center’s annual run/walk fundraiser, gave Laurie a newfound sense of purpose and focus. She is passionate about raising money to support brain cancer research.

“I immediately felt a sense of community the first year I went to Race for Research,” she reflected. “I only raised about $1,000, but when I discovered that the top individual fundraiser got to tell their story, I told myself I would reach that goal someday.”

She was gearing up for the 2020 Race for Research when COVID hit, so like everyone else, she had to pivot and rework her plan.

The plan would involve: 84 pounds of flour, 81 pounds of butter, 80 pounds of powdered sugar, 42 pounds of brown sugar, 20 pounds of sugar, and 324 eggs, plus flavorings, chocolate chips and M&Ms. She’s sold more than 3,800 sugar, chocolate chip and M&M cookies to raise money for the cancer center - $7,000 to date which means Laurie has achieved her goal to be the lead fundraiser.

Each cookie is made from scratch by Laurie herself. She donates all of her time and covers half the cost of supplies while donations from the community specifically earmarked for supplies cover the rest.

Since the brain surgery impacted her spatial recognition, her husband Jeremy builds all the boxes. It’s a family affair that comes with some perks. Laurie joked: “And of course, my daughter and husband eat the oopsies. It's a sacrifice, but they're willing to do so.”

Laurie’s cookies have become a big hit all over Dubuque and even made it to the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines when a dear friend, Iowa State Representative Lindsay James, delivered Laurie’s cookies and shared her story to help raise awareness about the need to support cancer research. Orders have almost doubled from year to year due to word of mouth and a lot of repeat customers.

“The first year, I offered delivery and that made my fatigue worse with all the driving and chatting,” says Laurie. “Everybody is aware that I have challenging days, so people are patient and wait their turn for me to fulfill orders.”

When COVID hit, she began offering a no-contact pick-up from her home with people donating to her Race for Research fundraising page or putting cash in an envelope on what she calls her “magic cookie table.” It brings her enormous joy that people often donate more than the cost of the cookies, and she frequently sees people tearing into the box of cookies at the end of her driveway.

Leaving a legacy

The one ingredient in Laurie’s cookies that you can’t measure or buy is the tender loving care Laurie adds to every batch she bakes.

She created two very special sugar cookie designs to provide strength and hope to those impacted by brain cancer – one with a gray ribbon to represent “Brain Cancer Warriors” and another with rosettes. She recently made cookies especially for a 14-year-old girl who is battling stage 3 astrocytoma – the same cancer she has.

“Everyone is affected by cancer. It's personal to many people, and I like the dichotomy of people getting joy from my cookies for such a sad situation,” Laurie reflected. “When they see the gray ribbons, I want people who know me, have worked with me, sat by me in a class or have seen me raise my kids or anyone who simply realizes that they have a sibling the same age I was diagnosed with cancer to share my story or even just pause and reflect for a moment.”

Laurie says her greatest wish is, “I want my legacy to be that I made the best of a bad situation. I like to say I'm squeezing the lemons I got handed SO hard that I'm adding sugar and turning them in to something sweet and thinking outside the box which is in my case, a cookie box.”

About Race for Research, a virtual event June 5-19, 2021

UW Carbone’s Race for Research 2-Week Virtual Challenge is a run/walk to benefit adult and pediatric cancer research at the UW Carbone Cancer Center and American Family Children’s Hospital. The event is the kickoff for the American Family Insurance Championship and will run June 5-19.

While Laurie can’t ship her cookies, she encourages donations and participation in the Race for Research. Start your own fundraising page and join us for our virtual event challenge or consider a one-time donation. Both options also allow you to make a donation in memory or in honor of someone special.

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