Memories of Laura Whittaker as told by Caroline Arey, 24 Foundation’s Marketing and Communications Coordinator

“We all know someone affected by cancer.” It’s a powerful truth at its core, but repeated so often, that the idea of cancer is almost mundane. Inevitable. Until the call comes, and the diagnosis is in, and you hear the words of horror from a friend. A sister. An aunt. A coworker. A neighbor. A daughter.

#24FacesCancer recently shared the story behind Team Cootie Jones, a spirited, dynamic group of family and friends, mascoted by a lop-eared dog, rallying behind Laura Whittaker. This summer, in what would be her final few months, Laura joined the 24 Foundation staff as a summer communications intern, and her primary project was launching our blog series #24FacesCancer. Little did we know that Laura would become THE face of our team and the series.

I’d only been at 24 Foundation for a few weeks, acting as an interim part time marketing director, when a coworker excitedly hurried over to my desk to tell me that THE Cootie Jones had applied for our summer communications internship. I rode the wave of enthusiasm with her, but as I was still feeling out the lay of the land, it didn’t mean a lot to me. I’d seen “Cootie Jones” and a dog illustration on our Dedication Wall; I’d seen poignant pictures of a beautiful young woman wearing a punchy purple Cootie Jones jersey, riding on a tandem bike and led by her dad at 2016’s 24 Hours of Booty, but that’s all she really was… a team name. Some pictures. A kick ass jersey.

I knew she had cancer when I interviewed her. Of course, I did. But I hadn’t dealt with cancer in a peer before, so I did what any mature, self-aware professional would do… I pretended it didn’t exist. I was immediately connected to her through a shared Charlotte residency, alumna status at NC State, and a passion for writing. In our first phone interview, she mentioned she would be receiving treatments over the summer that may take her out of the office from time to time, and I blithely told her, “OF COURSE! No one understands more than we do! Do whatever you need to!”

When Laura started working with us, she became simply “Laura.” In my head she was separate from Cootie Jones. I wasn’t sure how to ask about her cancer. Was it normal or taboo to ask how she was feeling, what her course of treatment looked like, how SHE felt about having cancer. What it meant for her future. I didn’t know. So instead, Laura became Laura, and she introduced me to the Avett Brothers, and I introduced her to the podcast Up & Vanished. We gossiped about the Bachelor, and when she had to leave for vitamin infusions or treatments, I simply acted like she told me she was running to Target for some paper towels.

Only, she wasn’t leaving for paper towels. She was leaving to find ways to nourish her weak body. She was heading to Levine Cancer Institute and to Jacksonville, FL, to try and understand and learn what was ahead of her. I finally broached the subject with her, as I got over my own stigmas associated with cancer, and I was amazed at her poise, grace and humor as she talked about the next steps… the surgery… the new drug.

When Laura started working remotely more frequently, I pretended it wasn’t because the cancer was ravaging her body. She was producing great social media content and beautiful blog posts, as she championed our efforts with #24FacesCancer.

At this year’s 24 Hours of Booty, as I watched Laura perched once again on the back of a tandem bike, piloted by her dad, in their impossible-to-miss Cootie Jones kit, I realized the impact that Laura was having not just on me, but on our staff, and on the cancer community at large. It wasn’t just her strength. But it was also her resilience. Her determination. Her perseverance. Her optimism. Her cheer. Her love for her family. Her tenacity. Her ambition. It was all right there and being jeopardized by the enemy of cancer.

The Booty Loop wasn’t just the Booty Loop. The tandem wasn’t just a tandem. Somewhere on that bike and on that course, there was triumph that she was there.

For the last few weeks of the summer, Laura couldn’t join us around the table at our weekly staff meeting, and it seemed cruel that the next time we were all together was just this past weekend celebrating her life and reflecting on the impact that will radiate on and on.

We’ll always have the Bachelor and bluegrass and podcasts, of course, but more than that, I’ll always have the wisdom and grace that Laura imparted to me as she managed to be a 28-year old woman achieving great things while crashing through hurdles with a smile and an artfully wrapped headscarf and statement earring.

When each day counts as drastically as it did for Laura, 24 Hours of Booty 2018 seems like a lifetime away. In her final email to our team, Laura was full of hope and gratitude for the future ahead of her, telling us that she couldn’t wait to be out on the Loop in 2018 as a team captain. While we won’t see her riding in 2018, we know that she’ll be the captain, just like she planned.

We will always miss Laura, and we have set up a Live Like Laura fund for those who wish to donate in her memory.

While we don’t play favorites around the office, we can pretty confidently proclaim that we’ll always be part of the Cootie Jones family and carry a piece of that lop-eared dog inside of us.