Growing up it was my dream to play soccer in college. I got that chance when Coach Rob Donnenwirth asked if I would like to come to ECU to play soccer. When I got to ECU, I bonded with my teammates, loved my classes, and met some really awesome friends. The only problem was that I wasn’t performing at the level that I needed to on the field. I failed fitness test after fitness test and I was constantly physically exhausted. I had numbness and tingling in my toes and was having some trouble breathing when I exerted myself at a high level. Other than those little symptoms, I felt great!
After several failed attempts to pass fitness test and always being tired we came to the decision that it might be a good time to run some medical test to see if we would figure out what was wrong. They found nothing. I convinced myself to think that I was just burnt out from the game. After a year of frustration and complications I made the hardest decision of my life to stop playing soccer. I still had the same symptoms from before when I was exercising but not at the level it had been.
Two years later, in October of 2007, I presented to the emergency room with complaints of a lower abdomen pain where I thought my appendix was rupturing or having cramps but my sister insisted that female cramps were not that bad. They took me in and did a CT scan of my abdomen and my lungs showed up on the scan.
They told me that my ovaries did have some small cyst on them but that they thought that they were fine, but wanted to inform me that I had about a 3cm mass on my left lung. My heart sank!! Lung cancer runs in my family, but surely I did not have lung cancer or a tumor. I was 21 years old and a former college athlete and NEVER smoker.
After the night at the hospital I went home. The next two weeks we spent in doctors’ offices all over the state trying to see what this mass really was. No doctor thought it was possible for it to be lung cancer. After several test I finally got my answer when meeting with a surgeon. That doctor’s appointment was when I went into shock. He walked into my room and said Taylor I hear you have lung cancer. I freaked out¦ no one had said the word lung cancer yet because no one was sure.
My doctor told me that the mass was pretty large but that it was going to have to come out, but he felt comfortable that he would be able to do the small incision and get it all out. The only problem was that I was really sick. After the first bronchoscope I developed really bad pneumonia, basically to the point that I could not walk. So we had to wait to have my surgery until I could pass a breathing test to prove that my lungs could handle the surgery. I finally got well enough to have the surgery. On November 14, 2007, I had a VATS pneumonectomy.
After the surgery I was a mess. The chest tube was HORRIBLE!!!! I was in the ICU for 2 days and then moved to a step down unit. I had the chest tube in for about five days! They made me walk around the halls and I HATED it. It was so miserable.
I went home the day before thanksgiving, and went back to college after the New Year. It was hard going back to school because all my friends really did not understand. It was hard for them also, because on the outside I did not look like I was sick, I looked like the normal Taylor Bell. But on the inside I was in a lot of pain.
It was also hard because it’s kind of an emotional roller coaster. I looked fine but I had just had a MAJOR surgery. I wanted to go on spring break, but I was nowhere well enough to go. It was depressing. I wanted to be like everyone else and have a good time, but I knew deep down my body could not handle it.
Spring break week was probably when the fact that I had lung cancer hit me. The months before it all happened so fast I did not even think about it¦ it went from diagnoses, to surgery, to recovery, to class starting. One thing after another with really no time to think about what I was going through.
I was a mess that week. I did not want my parents or my friends to see that I was upset. I think the hardest part was that I looked fine. I did not lose my hair I did not have a big scars¦ I looked normal. I was still in a lot of pain, and I was so upset that I could not be with everyone. Cancer is kind of strange because you have a lot of thoughts that go through your head. You think a lot about it. Or what did I do to deserve this. Spring break week I thought a lot about it and that’s when I realized this happened to me because I am a strong enough person to handle it. I made it through and I am ALIVE and that’s when I realized I HAVE to do something to speak up for everyone who has lost their life.
I now do as much public speaking and advocacy about lung cancer as I possibly can. I am a member of Jillian’s Legacy which is an organization that was formed in honor of Jillian Costello who like me was a division 1 college athlete who was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 21. Jill fought with such grace and determination. When she passed away a group of friends decided that we needed to do something in her honor. She did not just want to beat lung cancer for herself but her goal was to beat lung cancer for everyone.
I think one of the greatest obstacles with lung cancer is getting people to break the stigma. Every time I say that I had lung cancer the first words I hear are Oh you smoked?” Well no actually I have not, and I have never been around second hand smoke either. Then their next question is a oh it must run in your family then and then my answer is well yes it does, but there is very little funding to do research to tell if there is a genetic link.
Breaking that stigma is hard. When someone tells you the have breast cancer or they had brain cancer they donate ask any questions as to how they got it. Why do they do it with lung cancer? No one deserves this disease whether they smoked or not and everyone deserves the same compassion.
My main goal is to get the message out that this can happen to young people and people who have never smoked, it can happen to anyone. Lung Cancer does NOT discriminate. And even if they have made the choice to smoke at some point in their life they still deserve the same compassion as anyone who is fighting for their life. And that lung cancer deserves way more funding than what it gets right now!!
When I was first diagnosed I used to think “why me” now I think “why not me?” My diagnosis has shaped me into such a strong person and has given me the avenue to make a difference in people’s lives that have to fight this battle as well.