Being in your 20s is a pivotal period in life. It’s when you can try new things, and eventually, find yourself and the right direction for your life. But what if, at 26, your doctor informs you that you have stage three breast cancer? That was the reality that Layla Ali-Ahmad faced in June of 2014.
Layla was born and raised in Orange County and got her degree in civil engineering from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. But in 2010, she found home in Long Beach, eventually becoming a staple in the community when she founded Beach City Food Tours, a company offering walking tours of downtown culinary hot spots.
“I worked in a big consulting firm for about three years, and I was miserable. I found myself taking a bunch of mental breaks looking at food sites and blogs and figuring out what I was doing when I was off work,” she said.
That’s when she decided she wanted to join the industry. She started selling wholesale wine for Wine Exchange where she first met her friend Amy Yamaguchi. But a year into her new job, she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Doctors linked her cancer to a family gene, a genetic mutation called PALB2, of which her aunt passed away from at 47.
“I took a year off and did the whole traditional chemoradiation, double mastectomy, hormone therapy. I was technically in remission for two years,” Ali-Ahmed said.
In the midst of her diagnosis, she had to postpone her wedding to her now-husband. But during her time of remission, they got married and had their honeymoon. She calls it a whirlwind trip to Europe where they spent two days in Edinburgh, Scotland. Wanting to explore the city while getting the most out of their experience, they signed up for a food tour. She had a great experience and realized that no one was doing something like this back home, but she could.
“I think it was just kind of the time in my life when I decided it was something that I thought I could do in Long Beach, because the city has so many great places,” she said.
This led to the creation of Beach City Food Tours in 2016, but less than a year later, her doctor noticed her tumor markers were elevating. She went in for a CT scan and learned that the cancer was back—this time, in her bones at stage four.
“Honestly, you’d never know that she was sick. She never was the victim. she never used that as any sort of conversation piece, she didn’t talk about it, she still doesn’t,” Yamaguchi said. “If anything I feel like it just made her work harder, like she wanted to get that food tour off the ground and she just did it which was so freaking rad. She didn’t let it at all define her or let it stop her in any sense of that matter.”
Layla and her family weren’t going to take this news lying down. Layla’s twin sister Nina became a research guru and learned anything she could from other people’s success stories; she even found a secret world of people “cheating” cancer.
“If she was at an oncologist, they’re just going to follow whatever the standard care is. With her stage four metastasized to her liver, she’s looking at like 12-24 months, which none of us are going to accept. She’s just too young to have that be her lifespan,” Yamaguchi said. “So these studies that Nina found, they’re really promising. They’re really excited and her mental state is good. She’s not given up and she doesn’t think that this is it. She’s ready to get better.”
Nina found leads to doctors who operate outside the standard of care. She found places around the world with medicine she couldn’t get here, such as immunotherapy she received in Vienna, Austria.
“If the FDA doesn’t approve that treatment for that type of cancer, according to the standard of care, it could be 10, 20, 30 years, or even never, for you to get some of the drugs you can get abroad,” Ali-Ahmed said. “Unfortunately, none of it is covered by insurance and so you’re kind of forced to pay out-of-pocket, so we did that.”
Layla is currently undergoing 10-12 weeks of treatment in Boca Raton after two month-long stays in Vienna. She’s experiencing a combination of very low-dose chemotherapy, immunotherapy drugs, pills that strip away the copper from her blood, oxygen deprivation tanks, the works. Fighting cancer has become her new full-time operation.
“I take 60 pills a day, roughly, from repurposed drugs and supplements that have been shown to [work] in several different trials,” Ali-Ahmed said. “It’s all very expensive if you don’t have insurance, and when you try to break the mold or fall out of the standard of care the insurance starts to just deny, deny, deny.”
Considering the cost for all this, Amy got the ok to start Layla’s Plumfund, similar to GoFundMe. Their goal? To make $100,000 to go toward Layla’s medical expenses.
“She and her parents are not known for asking for help and they definitely don’t want to bother anybody financially but in a situation like Layla’s so many people always wanted to do something for her but you can’t do anything,” Yamaguchi said. “They never wanted to do a fundraiser until this last visit to Florida and they finally said I could start it. I don’t think they anticipated the outreach and the outpour that people would show to them, but I knew that people wanted to help her.”
Nina’s cyberspace community has helped her find treatments that could potentially save her, but it’s Layla community back home that’s ensuring she gets the help she needs. Donations started flowing in and they met their goal in under three weeks. The fund has reached over $108,000 so far, but they’re going to keep it going considering the total expenses after phase one of treatment were more than $65,000.
“The community support has been amazing,” Ali-Ahmed said. “It’s coming from everywhere, a lot of Long Beach connections that I’ve made through the tour, people who I haven’t spoken to in years from high school, acquaintances in college, some strangers, which has been really amazing.”
Because of Layla’s involvement in the community, those she’s grown close to are doing their part to help. Crossfit Belmont Heights is selling “Team Layla” t-shirts to support Layla and help raise funds. Barbells for Boobs, a Long Beach-based organization, is doing a fundraiser with her previous employer, Wine Exchange. Fourth and Olive is also offering two prix fixe dinners, and part of the proceeds will go toward Layla’s medical costs.
Romeo Chocolates and The Pie Bar are also hosting Team Layla Music & Wine Strength Party on Saturday, Nov. 10 from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at MADE by Millworks, where Layla herself will be in attendance.
“A lot of the Long Beach community has been incredible,” Yamaguchi said. “It’s been really insane, actually, and the Plumfund has been shared over 2,000 times. I’m really thankful.”