On the first day of the College of the Canyons spring 2023 semester, Laura Llamas was virtually attending her civil litigation class via Zoom along with her classmates. Unbeknownst to all, Llamas was physically in an emergency room in Utah.
Llamas, who was diagnosed with stage three triple negative breast cancer in May 2022, did not want to miss her first day despite falling ill, not when she was one semester shy from graduating.
“It’s been tough,” said the 33-year-old mother of two who relocated to Utah in October 2022 receive treatment at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. “I thought I was going to die sometimes. Cancer is cruel and it’s going to do what it wants, but I had faith that I would be ok.”
With the help of her family and the support of COC counselors and instructors, Llamas will fulfill her lifelong dream on June 2 when she graduates with an associate degree in paralegal studies.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Llamas. “I made it here and it just feels so surreal. “I am very grateful that I had support from the professors and the counselors at COC because if it wasn’t for their positive comments and just their supportive nature, I wouldn’t have made it this far.”
Llamas first enrolled at COC in 2009, but after having a son, she entered the workforce.
In 2020, her first husband died in a motorcycle accident, and she subsequently experienced homelessness.
While staying at a homeless shelter for mothers, Llamas was reminded of her childhood dream to become a lawyer.
“I got to see from a very young age that help with the legal system is scarce for the lower income population,” said Llamas. “But I thought the financial position that law school can put you in might be a little too hard for me, so I thought I could do a paralegal program and learn what I can learn and help people at a legal aid office who are having a hard time economically.”
Reignited with a sense of purpose, Llamas returned to COC in 2019 to accomplish her goal.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, Llamas resisted being thrown off track.
However, a six-month round of chemotherapy didn’t make matters easy.
“Chemotherapy would put me to sleep for four days out of the week, so I only had three days to do all the work I had to do,” said Llamas. “I had to muster the courage to sit down in front of the computer even if I was feeling really sick.”
As a result, Llamas started falling behind her schoolwork, and despite the understanding nature of her professors, she was feeling overwhelmed.
One day, when she was at her lowest point, the phone rang.
It was her COC counselor Liz Shaker, calling to check in on her progress in the college’s Pathway to Law School program.
When Llamas explained her uphill battle to keep up with her schoolwork, Shaker gave her the pep talk she needed to hear.
“She said, ‘You can do this. You have come this far. This is your last class, but don’t feel bad if you can’t do it,’” recalled Llamas. “I said to her, ‘I’ve got this right?’ And she said, ‘Of course you do!’ So, I was crying, got off the phone and I said, ‘I am going to do this because I got this.’ That started the train again. I haven’t stopped since.”
Llamas says her schoolwork is what has kept her going.
“I sought refuge in school,” said Llamas. “I had to focus on something else other than cancer and that was the classes at COC.”
Llamas wakes up at 5 a.m. to do homework and then spends time with her four-year-old daughter.
“Once my husband gets home, he takes over and then I go back to doing homework,” said Llamas. “I go to sleep late, but it’s what I have to do to make sure that I graduate.”
Shaker says her counseling appointments with Llamas always leave her feeling invigorated.
“Laura is one of the most hard working and inspirational individuals I know,” said Shaker. “The challenge is her mind is dedicated to working hard and graduating, but her body is exhausted and the radiation has really taken a toll on her energy level. I am always inspired by her commitment.”
Llamas hopes her story encourages others to ask for help when they are facing challenges that seem insurmountable.
“You have to fight for your dreams,” said Llamas. “Seek help in whatever way you can at school, because the more people know what you are going through, the more they will be able to help you.”
After graduation, Llamas will be taking a break from school this summer before resuming chemotherapy. She hopes to transfer to USC or Loyola Marymount University in Spring 2024 to study political science.
“I am eternally grateful to the school and the support,” said Llamas of COC. “They have all helped me and taken the time and showed me that they care about the student in general, they just care about your progress. They won’t let you fail if you don’t let yourself.”