“I’m Still Hopeful”
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Emily Joyce Stewart Clay, the mother of Houston-based author, motivational speaker, TV personality, and wellness expert Lola Clay, was the epitome of the perfect mom. She was kind, nurturing, accepting, patient, and open-minded, and she had a vibrant and welcoming energy. When Lola suffered from stuttering as a child, Emily relentlessly practiced word recitations with her every day for years to help her overcome her stutter, and now Lola is a seasoned public speaker. When Lola was a child, her parents owned a convenience store and a motel in Houston, and Emily would always help everyone she met there. She even taught people how to read, and this spirit of selflessly assisting others inspired Lola’s career as a mental and behavioral health therapist.
In 2017, Emily’s and Lola’s lives were irrevocably changed. In the days following the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Lola checked on Emily to make sure she was all right. However, when Emily climbed the stairs of her house, she was struck with a sharp pain and a severe dizzy spell. Alarmed, Lola immediately took Emily to the hospital, and that started a journey of consulting with doctor after doctor seeking answers. Emily had been a diabetic for a long time, and even though her diabetes was well-controlled, at first doctors thought she was having some complications. Other doctors prescribed physical therapy for her pain.
After several months had passed and nothing the doctors tried alleviated Emily’s symptoms, Lola advocated for her mom to have cancer screenings and blood tests, hoping to rule out cancer as the source of her pain. However, Lola’s worst fears were confirmed when her mom was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer at 76, despite having no family history of the disease. She never became jaundiced due to the tumor’s location, and her doctors hadn’t previously considered that pancreatic cancer could be causing her symptoms. Unfortunately, by the time Emily received her diagnosis, her cancer had already spread, and she wasn’t eligible for surgery. Instead, she underwent an intense chemotherapy regimen.
“When my mom was diagnosed, I prayed to have just one more year to adjust,” Lola shared. “My mom was very spiritual and handled the disease with such dignity, strength, and grace.” She used meditation, prayer, poetry, and music therapy to cope, and she insisted that Lola and her two older sisters focus on their careers and not put their lives on hold because she was ill. They even took a family trip to Las Vegas following her mom’s diagnosis so they could continue to build positive, enduring memories.
After chemotherapy, Emily’s doctors recommended she undergo radiation therapy, but Emily declined; she didn’t want to put her body through further treatment, and she wasn’t afraid of passing away. This decision forced Lola and her sisters to acknowledge their beloved mother was dying, that she had the right to choose how to live out her final days, and that she didn’t deserve to have stress or anxiety related to her loved ones’ ability to cope with her prognosis.
Emily stopped treatment in June 2019. During that summer, some weeks were incredibly difficult, and other weeks her energy surged. By late August, she was bedridden and eating very little, and by the end of October, she was receiving in-home hospice care at Lola’s house. Lola recommends taking care of the caregiver in the process of caring for the patient and making sure the caregiver doesn’t feel guilty when asking for help. “It’s a huge, stressful commitment to accompany your loved one on a cancer journey, so value the moments you still have with your loved one and give yourself the space and time to process what you’re both experiencing.” As both a therapist and a caregiver, Lola also suggests everyone dealing with this traumatizing disease consider working through their feelings with a mental health professional or another trusted expert.
Even though it was a relief when Emily passed away that November, Lola said there are instances when she feels very vulnerable without her mom, and despite being a successful, accomplished adult, she sometimes feels like an orphan and has a hard time functioning. “You are forever changed as a person after going through something like this. A little of my light is gone, and I’m not the same person I was. I’m still hopeful, but a little less joyful, and there’s a presence of underlying sadness,” Lola added.
Emily’s experience going through pancreatic cancer has impacted Lola’s approach as a therapist; now, Lola has even more empathy and compassion for her patients and for her friends who are either battling illnesses themselves or grieving losses of their own loved ones because she understands what they’re experiencing in such a visceral way. In addition to helping her patients cope with their struggles and losses, Lola knew she needed to channel her negative energy following her mom’s passing into making a positive change in the world. She found the Lustgarten Foundation and immediately became involved, grateful that 100% of every donation to the Foundation directly funds research and eager to turn the pain of her indescribable loss into a passion to find a cure for pancreatic cancer. In 2020 and 2021 she participated in the Foundation’s National Virtual Walk and National Neighborhood Walk, organizing a team to walk in their local Houston neighborhood and fundraise for research. She also collaborated with Tie Wood, a Houston artist whose work Emily loved, to plan and host an art show, and the proceeds benefited the Foundation’s research program.
This year, Lola is continuing her fundraising momentum by joining Team Lustgarten for the TCS New York City Marathon on Sunday, November 5, 2023. She is up for the challenge of the race, despite never having run a marathon, and can’t wait to cross the finish line, feeling empowered and surrounded by a cheering crowd that includes her immediate family. “I believe research will come so far in my lifetime that patients will live much longer,” Lola said. “I want to do my part to raise awareness and increase survivorship for this disease—like the level of survivorship that exists for other diseases such as breast cancer—and the marathon is a great opportunity to do that.”
Lola understands why fundraising and planning events can be daunting for those who have never done this before, but she recommends people start slowly by first talking to others they know and sharing their stories without getting discouraged. “The Lustgarten Foundation will meet you wherever you are in the fundraising and event-planning process. They will provide the guidance, tutelage, and resources needed for your initiative to be a success,” Lola remarked. “The more people who fundraise and support Lustgarten, the quicker we can find new treatments to get ahead of this disease and save lives.”
“Getting involved with the Lustgarten Foundation has given me a community of support,” Lola continued. “I recommend everyone navigating a life-changing diagnosis like this find others to directly learn from and meet people who understand what you’ve been through and who can empathize with you. For me, this support has made a huge difference.”