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Local cancer survivor on track to save others

A 20-year-old Washington University student is taking her cancer research personally after surviving stage-four neuroblastoma.  At an age when others are looking for a career, she's looking for a cure.

Every day, in a lab at Washington University School of Medicine, they're taking small steps to answer big questions.

"We're looking how inflammation influences blood stem cells," explained Dr. Laura Schuettpelz, assistant professor of pediatrics.

Dr. Laura Schuettpelz is a pediatric oncologist focused on finding better treatments for Leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer.

"I'm really particularly interested in and understanding the pathogenesis or how Leukemia develops in children," she said.

Lauren Bendesky, 20, is a research assistant, meaning in addition to a textbook and calculator, her school supply list includes slides and test tubes.

"Looking at different cells to see where they are in the bone marrow," Bendesky told 5 On Your Side.

It's not unusual for a third year pre-med student to work in a lab, but what is unusual is that for Lauren, this research is personal.

In 2012, as a ninth grader, Lauren was diagnosed with stage-four neuroblastoma.

"My immediate reaction was shock," she said. "As a 14-year-old, you don't really expect to be thrown into that kind of world."

Doctors found a 15-pound mass in her abdomen and the cancer had metastasized to her bone marrow. What followed was 18 months of rigorous treatment, including chemotherapy, stem cell therapy and antibody therapy.

"There were times where treatment wasn't that difficult," she said, "but there were times I would sleep the entire week on so many pain medications that I didn't even know what was going on."

Less than 10 percent of neuroblastoma cases occur in patients older than 10, but Lauren is a survivor.

"So I'm in remission and I just go through yearly scans just to make sure nothing comes back," Bendesky explained.

The Florida native is studying biology and anthropology as an undergrad, but her past is pulling her to her future.

"So, if we come back in 10 years, where do you suspect you'll be?" we asked.

"So, I hope that I will have graduated medical school and will be in training to become a pediatric oncologist," she said.

Lauren has already used her own blood samples as part of a study evaluating the very type of cancer she fought.

"It's one of my favorite things about my job is being able to mentor trainees, especially someone like Lauren who is so passionate, so smart, so motivated," said Dr. Schuettpelz.

Lauren Bendesky is a woman with focus. At an age when others are looking for a career, she's looking for a cure.

For more ways to help children with cancer, you can visit the St. Baldrick's Foundation website.

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