In my first soccer game at the age of five, it was obvious that I had some natural talent and ability. I played recreation soccer until I was 10 years old and then I was asked to try out for a club team. When I made that team it’s safe to say that my life and my family’s life revolved around soccer.
In 2005, I graduated from high school and quickly started to prepare for what was next. I decided that I was going to play soccer at East Carolina University. I spent that entire summer training for pre-season and trying to get my body prepared for the next level.
I loved my teammates and my coaches, however the demand that was placed on my body both physically and mentally was insane. I had prepared all summer to be able to pass the fitness tests and when it came down to it, I simply couldn’t do it. I then started to notice numbness and tingling in my feet that eventually started to creep up my legs. It was so painful that I couldn’t run anymore. I had nerve conduction studies done, I had an MRI of my back and my head, I was placed on rest, I got new cleats, and I went to physical therapy. I had tried everything and nothing was making it better. It was only getting worse.
After my freshman year, I made the difficult decision that I wasn’t going to play soccer anymore. How could I give up on something so easily that was such a large part of my life? I had made sacrifices and my family had made sacrifices. I never really understood why I gave up until I was sitting in a doctor’s office in 2007.
It was fall break of my junior year and I felt a sharp shooting pain in my stomach. I went to the ER and they thought either my appendix was rupturing or that I had a cyst on my ovaries, so they did a CT of my abdomen. The results were much worse than I ever imagined. I had a 3cm mass on my left lung and it was collapsed.
I had just lost my grandmother to lung cancer. She was diagnosed and passed away 40 days later so immediately when I heard a lung mass I thought lung cancer. But I kept thinking to myself… this isn’t lung cancer…. I am 21 years old, a never smoker, and a former division 1 soccer player. There was no way. But I was wrong, “So Ms. Bell, I understand you have lung cancer” — is exactly what the doctor said to me! Um, excuse me? What did you say? I thought to myself… Really? From that day forward I went into survival mode.
My parents were able to get an appointment with the best thoracic surgeon in the nation, Dr. Thomas D’Amico at Duke who is the pioneer for minimally invasive thoracic surgery. It would be determined after surgery if I would need chemo or radiation. Finally on November 14th, 2007 I had my surgery where they removed my upper lobe and Lingula on the left side.
To be honest, I wasn’t prepared for the pain that was to come afterwards. The procedure couldn’t have gone better and ended up not needing chemo or radiation. Thank God! However, my recovery was much longer than I had hoped for or expected. Because I had switched into survival mode before surgery, I had taken little time to think about everything that was happening. Recovery was harder than anything I could have imagined. What used to be a simple task of getting up and going to the bathroom or walking to the kitchen became a task that took my mom and sister helping me throughout the entire process.
I came back to ECU after Christmas break, but life was different. Walking to class was a challenge. I would get so exhausted just trying to be a full time student that I really had no social life. I wasn’t interested in going out with my friends because I still had a ton of pain and I was worried someone would bump into me downtown. I couldn’t go to the gym with all the girls, I couldn’t go on spring break, and I couldn’t participate in intramurals. Life was just different. From the outside I really didn’t look like I was sick. I still had my long blonde hair and besides the fact that I had lost a few pounds, had two small scars, and I was paler than normal– I looked like I was just fine. But I had just had MAJOR surgery. Because I looked healthy, I think it was challenging for my friends and others to understand what I had been through.
After the physical healing I had a lot of emotional healing to do. At first, right after my diagnosis, I kept thinking to myself… “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve lung cancer?” I was angry and I was sad. I felt like lung cancer had taken so much away from me. I felt like it had robbed me of my college experience. I remember thinking that my life would never be the same.
It wasn’t until my 3 month post-surgery checkup that I realized and understood why this experience was happening to me. It was like Christ was speaking to me through my doctor. Dr. D’Amico told me two important things that day. The first was this: “Taylor, I can imagine that you hadn’t been feeling quite right for a number of years before we removed your tumor”… I remember thinking “Ding Ding! No wonder I couldn’t pass the fitness test!” I had a 3cm tumor that was resting on my heart which was causing nerve issues in my toes and I had a collapsed lung. His statement made me realize that I shouldn’t feel like a failure for quitting the team. That feeling was so incredibly liberating to me. The second thing that Dr. D’Amico said to me at that appointment was this: “Taylor, I know you are upset that this has happened to you, however, I am confident that you experienced this for a reason and its how you move on with it that matters”.
After his comment, I stopped having a pity party for myself and started advocating for others. I did everything I could to educate myself about lung cancer. And I began speaking publically about my experience. Since that day, I have worked to try and break the stigma that only smokers get lung cancer.
Lung cancer is a disease that kills more people than breast, prostate, colon and pancreatic cancers COMBINED. It is the number one cancer killer of men and women in this nation. 70% of the newly diagnosed are either NEVER smokers or people who quit decades ago. 210,000 people will be diagnosed this year in the United States alone and 160,000 people will pass away this year from the disease. When President Nixon declared the war on cancer in 1970 the survival rate for lung cancer was 15%… today 40 years later, I am sad to say that the survival rate hasn’t changed. Why? Because of the stigma. To me, this is unacceptable.
Funding for lung cancer research lags far behind other cancers and I believe that there are two reasons for this. First, the federal government still stigmatizes the disease and their allocation of research dollars are not split equally between the different types of cancer. Second, with a stagnant 15.5% survival rate for the last 40 years– we do not have the physical bodies to speak up and to advocate for lung cancer like other cancer survivors have been able to do. In 6 years, not one person has congratulated me when they find out I’m a survivor. People always ask “Did you smoke?” or “How did you get lung cancer?” or “What else causes lung cancer?” The answer is simple… We don’t know. I didn’t smoke, I don’t know how I got it, and I don’t know what else causes it. The researchers don’t know either. The need for federal funding and grass roots funding is critical as we move forward to try and work to increase the survival rate and figure out what the causes of lung cancer are. With funding we will be able to do more cutting edge research which will help us identify the causes of lung cancer which will also help create new drugs to fight the disease.
As Katie Couric said it best on the nightly news a few years ago… “We need to stop playing the blame game, and figure out what is really going on”.
At first, I wondered, “why me?” –now I know why. I survived to advocate for everyone who aren’t fortunate enough to survive. It is a calling and I am both honored and privileged to have the opportunity to try and make a difference. I now speak across the country with physicians, for advocacy groups, drug companies and surgical companies and I have lobbied in congress. I also devoted the first three years of my career working for UNC Cancer Care trying to build a comprehensive cancer survivorship program in Greenville.
My diagnosis shaped me into the person I am today. It has made me appreciate life so much more. I don’t sweat the small things, I work harder than I ever thought was possible, I live every day to the fullest and I know what’s important in life. I take every life experience and try and turn it into a positive one. I take life’s hard times and use them to learn and grow. I surround myself with people who are only going to lift me higher and I start every day with a grateful heart. I know this sounds weird, but I am almost grateful for my cancer diagnosis because it has given me so much more than it ever took away from me.
If you are touched by this story and stirred by the alarming lack of research to improve survival rate for lung caner, here is a foundation that Taylor serves on the board. It is a dynamic branch of the Bonnie J. Addario Foundation. Their website is www.lungcancerfoundation.org/about-us/jillslegacy. It provides a wealth of information and allows you to contribute support as well.