Student refuses to let cancer dim her dream

12/01/2011 12:00 AM

10/08/2014 11:39 AM

Kourtney Lampedecchio is heading for Paris next week to soak up the culture. She'd like to go to New Orleans soon.

"They strike me as places that are indulgent and places where people know how to live life to the fullest," she said.

The concept has a special meaning for Lampedecchio.

Nearly four years ago, when she was 27, doctors told the UC Davis theater design student that she had Stage 4 breast cancer. It spread to her spine, destroying three vertebrae and requiring spinal fusion surgery. It spread through her bones, including her hips, so that she walks with a lopsided gait.

And it spread to her brain, threatening her vision for a time. Her doctor, pointing out the brain tumors on a scan, stopped counting at a dozen. "When he got to 12, he said, 'you get the point,' " she said.

"They told me they can't get rid of the cancer," Lampedecchio said last month, sitting on the couch where she often naps, exhausted from chemotherapy, in her campus art studio. "They can treat it and stay on top of it and maintain my quality of life."

Now 31, Lampedecchio is determined to be creative and enjoy the world around her. She designed the sets for the play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," which is showing today through Saturday at the UC Davis Main Theater in Wright Hall. The production, in which student actors and designers work with a professional director, opened Nov. 17.

Lampedecchio, who spent her teen years in Placerville, is working to complete her master of fine arts degree and has a number of productions to her credit. Over winter break, she plans to travel by herself to Paris, a city she envisions as full of food, music and culture.

She has an engaging smile and a bright laugh. They return quickly after an occasional struggle with tears, when frustration and sadness grip her.

"There's so much I'm working toward," she said, her voice breaking. "I get scared it might not happen. I'm trying to work so hard to get there. It's like a race."

Lampedecchio discovered theater when she was a student at Santa Rosa Junior College. Her parents took her to a performance of Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas. She was amazed by the beautiful sets.

"I thought, 'This is an art form. Who does this?' " she said.

She sought out theater design classes at Santa Rosa and went on to UCLA to earn her bachelor's degree in 2006.

Afterward, she landed a prized job as scenic artist at the Denver Center Theatre Company, a Tony Award-winning professional theater that's part of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

While working there, she started having back pain. It got worse. One day it became so intense, she called 911. "I thought I was dying," she said.

The doctors at the emergency room in Denver didn't know what to make of it.

"They sent me home with Vicodin and muscle relaxants," she said. "They weren't able to diagnose me because I was too young to have anything like breast cancer."

A few months later, in June 2008, she was working at a theater camp for teens in Steamboat Springs, Colo. She was scheduled to have an MRI to try to diagnose her continuing back problems.

The morning of the appointment, she collapsed in the shower, paralyzed from the waist down. She dragged herself to her housemate's room to get help.

Doctors rushed her in for an MRI. The emergency room doctor asked if she'd had any accidents. Her back was broken, he told her. If she hadn't been in an accident, he said, the fracture must have been caused by disease.

"He didn't even need to say cancer," she said.

Cancer is rare, aggressive

Emergency crews took Lampedecchio by jet and helicopter to Denver for a nine-hour operation to fuse her spine and implant titanium rods.

Doctors located the primary tumor in her breast and said the cancer had spread to her skeleton.

"I was in shock," she said. "At least I knew where all the pain was coming from."

She was in the hospital for two months and had a slow recovery using a walker. Her mother flew to Denver to take care of her. Eventually they came home to Placerville and arranged for cancer treatment at UC Davis.

Dr. Jyoti Mayadev, a radiation oncologist who has treated Lampedecchio at UC Davis, said she has a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer, especially unusual in a woman so young.

It spread through her musculoskeletal system and central nervous system, and doctors can only attempt to control it with radiation and chemotherapy, she said.

"Our main goal is to keep her as active and alive and doing everything she wants to do," Mayadev said. "It's treatable but not curable. She has survived longer than we anticipated."

There have been serious setbacks along the way.

Eight months after the initial surgery, the titanium rods in Lampedecchio's back snapped. Again, she was rushed into surgery. But this time, it was an entirely different experience.

After the surgery in Denver, she said, "I was like a little old lady with a walker." She emerged from the surgery at UC Davis, performed by spinal surgeon Eric Klineberg, "feeling like I never had a problem with my back. I felt like myself again. It was easy to do the things I enjoyed."

She began chemotherapy. She took college classes and worked on local theater productions at Capital Stage.

She applied to the MFA program in dramatic art at UC Davis, and was accepted to the two-year program, starting in September 2010.

In the months before the program started, she developed sight problems caused by a brain tumor.

"I was freaking out because I had double vision, and I was going into a visual arts program," she said. Radiation treatment cleared it up just before school started.

Creativity defies illness

Lampedecchio lives in Sacramento, not far from the UC Davis Medical Center, and drives most days to the main campus in Davis.

During her MFA program, she has designed shows including "The Who's Tommy," a Broadway-style rock opera staged in May, and "Hinterland," a radio-theater drama by artist-in-residence Lucy Gough that premiered in December 2010.

The current production, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern," is an offbeat take on two minor characters from Hamlet, written by playwright Tom Stoppard. Lampedecchio's black-and-white design evokes a 1920s movie set. A major backdrop folds up like an accordion, an idea she got from a Buster Keaton movie.

The play's director, Michael Barakiva, an artist-in-residence from New York, said Lampedecchio's work is on par with designers at professional theaters. He said she fights for her design concepts but knows when to compromise.

"It's rare that someone has a chance to learn so much from a student," he said.

Lampedecchio's mentor, UC Davis design professor John Iacovelli, said other students will pitch in to help when she has to go in for treatment or isn't capable of extended physical work, such as painting. But she generally doesn't let on how sick she is, he said.

"She's got the greatest excuse in the world, and she's always here and always on time. She wants to be here," Iacovelli said.

Lampedecchio said she used to agonize about why cancer attacked her. Was she exposed to a carcinogen? Did she eat the wrong foods?

Her aunt died of breast cancer, but it is the only known case in her family, she said. Doctors told her to stop worrying. There was no reason.

She said there have been times when she thought about giving up. "I definitely did have desperate moments where I thought my life's done. This is it."

And the thought that she will likely die of the disease is never far from her mind.

"I just think I might not be around to do all the things that I want to do. I get scared it's going to sneak up and take it away."

But she continues to go to her studio in the university's Art Building, where she creates model sets and draws, and to the theater next door, where she paints the sets she has designed.

"I'm working on a creative project that has a deadline. I can't die before this show opens," she said laughing.

She paused to reflect.

"It gives me these points in time that I have to reach," she said. "It keeps it so I'm working and not thinking about the cancer."

Her voice wavered for a moment.

"I can't worry if I'm going to be here or not," she said. "The show must go on."

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