When doctors diagnosed Kourtney Lampedecchio with a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer in her late 20s, the young woman from Placerville knew her life would be cut short.
The stage 4 cancer had spread through her body, breaking her spine and lacing her brain with more than a dozen tumors.
Instead of giving up, as Lampedecchio said she was sometimes tempted to do, she completed her master of fine arts degree at the University of California, Davis, in 2012 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue her career as a set designer. It was an art form she loved.
“There’s so much I’m working toward,” she told The Sacramento Bee in an interview for one of two front-page stories about her effort. “I get scared it might not happen. I’m trying to work so hard to get there. It’s like a race.”
After outliving doctors’ expectations during her 51/2-year struggle with cancer, Lampedecchio died earlier this month at the home of a friend in Shingle Springs. She was 33.
“She defied the odds,” said her mother, Vicky Morasci, of Placerville. “Not only did she defy the odds, she blew them out of the water by getting her master’s degree.”
Lampedecchio first told her story to The Bee in 2011, sitting on an old couch in her campus art studio where she would often nap, exhausted from cancer treatments.
She said she first fell in love with stage design after 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 Junior College, earned her bachelor’s degree from UCLA in 2006, and landed a prize job as a scenic artist at the Tony Award-winning Denver Center Theatre Company.
Then she started having severe back pain. One day it became so bad 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 weren’t able to diagnose me because I was too young to have anything like breast cancer,” she said.
A few months later, in June 2008, Lampedecchio collapsed, paralyzed from the waist down.
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.
Two lengthy spinal fusion surgeries followed, with titanium rods supporting her backbone. Sessions of radiation and chemotherapy kept the cancer in check but could not cure it.
In the months before she started at UC Davis, 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.
Lampedecchio’s sets and stage paintings at UC Davis, for plays such as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” by playwright Tom Stoppard, garnered raves from the professional designers she worked with.
On the day Lampedecchio graduated from UC Davis in June 2012, she went in for radiation therapy at the UC Davis Cancer Center in Sacramento to reduce the size of a tumor that was compressing her spine and threatening to paralyze her again.
Later that day she donned cap and gown and stood in line with her classmates. Her mother embraced her tearfully after she received her degree.
Lampedecchio moved to Los Angeles, where she worked on small independent films and stage productions before her illness made her unable to continue. She moved back to El Dorado County in November.
Lampedecchio was often in pain but rarely complained. She walked with a lopsided gait from a tumor in her hip. And even though she cried in sadness or fear at times, those who knew her well said what they most remembered was her infectious smile, her laugh and tremendous courage.
“She was a spirit that you couldn’t put down,” said John Iacovelli, a UC Davis professor who mentored Lampedecchio in theater design and worked with her on several projects, including a Broadway-style musical, in Los Angeles after she graduated.
“She had an incredible light to her, a life force that I’ve never seen before. She never accepted the defeat of this disease. It wasn’t in her character. She fought it every step of the way.”
“It’s a life cut way too short, but by the same token it was someone who only created good in the world,” he said.
Lampedecchio wanted her body donated for scientific research to the University of California, her mother said. Eventually, the family plans to host a celebration of Lampedecchio’s life.
“She touched so many people in such a short time it was absolutely amazing,” Morasci said.