Taylor, You Have Cancer

October 20, 2017

“Taylor, you have cancer.”
Hearing these words as a 12-year old girl quickly began a process of change that would forever effect my future. Prior to being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia, I’d often been described as “a sweet girl,” “a nice girl,” or “she’s so easy to have in class.” Every report card from kindergarten to 6th grade echoes these sentiments. I was the girl you may have noticed in the back row; the one who never complained or made waves. I never spoke out and always tried to blend-in. My life prior to cancer was what I considered a storybook existence living in my little yellow house in Bellingham, WA until suddenly… I was enveloped in a storm of sickness and disease in 2010.
Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) arrived 10 days after my 12th birthday in the form of an ear ache that wouldn’t go away no matter how many medicines I tried. After several visits to our local doctors’ offices to figure out why antibiotics weren’t curing “swimmer’s ear,” we were told “they’re waiting for you at Seattle Children’s ER. You need to go now!” Thus began the horrific storm of “cancer” in our family’s life.
But cancer doesn’t just affect the patient, it touches and scars everyone who intimately knows the sick person. As a sick girl, I didn’t understand why everyone was so scared, but I saw and felt the fear around me which seemed to permeate our new life at Seattle Children’s Hospital. My parents’ attempts to hide their red and swollen eyes told me something was seriously wrong, even though I didn’t understand the magnitude of the situation at the time. And my 8-year old little brother, who always got homesick at sleepovers, was thoroughly confused why he was being left to live with various families for weeks at a time, while my parents juggled taking turns caring for me at the hospital and trying to stay employed for health insurance to keep possession of our home.
Oddly, while living in “Cancerland”, the possibility that I might die never occurred to me even though many of my newly made friends passed away over the course of eight months at the hospital. Even when I spoke at 13 year old “Sarcoma Cody’s” funeral and told his parents I will really miss him or when I brought flowers to 11-year old “Blastoma Henry’s” grave with his mother Mei Lin before she returned to China, losing the fight against cancer never registered. Somehow, rather than quietly withering away in fear, watching friends die and attending their funerals, I quickly adapted to the new normal. I accepted a world filled with needles, bright lights, baldness, crying, nurses, doctors, beeping machines, pain, tremendous nausea, multiple blood transfusions and numerous drugs… whose names I could never pronounce.
Somehow, this new life invigorated me. What I learned from having cancer and death nearby was a full life includes both good and bad and I realized ‘bad’ is not always to be feared and fear can be an ally helping one rise to a challenge. I also gained an awareness from facing tremendous hardships that are apparently not unique to any one person. What IS unique is how an individual choses to face life’s trials.
For me, choosing to embrace my hardship helped me overcome many challenges. I also realized I should never limit who I think I am, doubt what I am capable of or ever allow myself to be defined by other people.
The young girl, once labeled “quiet and sweet” arose as a fierce and outspoken fighter in the face of adversity. The silent young girl eventually stood before 300+ people, giving speeches about the importance of donating blood or what it takes to be a decent nurse to children. The little unassuming girl made sure to be noticed, while featured in films campaigning for various worthwhile causes to help save the lives of others. The same girl, who once played it safe, went bungee jumping on her Make-A-Wish trip and leapt out of an airplane when she turned 16, with an ear to ear grin because I’ve learned facing one’s fears is to truly feel alive.
I’ve been called “an old soul” on more than one occasion and imagine it’s because others see my awareness and sense of presence. I have a deeper empathy and compassion for others, as a result of my experiences, and value more meaningful relationships. Fortunately, I’ve gained an understanding and respect for life few my age can appreciate and realize that every day is truly a gift.
Taylor Turk