By Marta Lawrence
When New Zealand native Anna Taylor was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer during her freshman year at Oregon State, the stand-out rower and her family were forced to make a heart-wrenching decision: bring her home, or keep her in the states where she could stay in school and receive top-ranked treatment unavailable on her island country.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Taylor, who received the diagnosis from her doctor in March 2011, after her team came home from one of the first competitions of the season. With her coach and trainer by her side, Taylor’s mind went spinning.
“I heard the words and I thought ‘oh God, am I ever going to row again? There’s a race next weekend, am I going to be able to do that?’” she said.
When Taylor called her parents, they quickly put the scared young women at ease. “My parents are both very supportive,” said Taylor, adding that her mom and dad are normally calm in crisis situations—a trait that Kevin and Raewyn Taylor attribute to their professions. Mr. Taylor is a police officer and Mrs. Taylor is a nurse and midwife.
“The advice we took…was that the kind of treatment she would get in the States is as good or better than anything she could get back home,” Mr. Taylor said. “So, there was no huge advantage in coming back and I guess part of the difficulty was that if she came home and she got treatment and had to be here for any length of time, she partially severs ties with what she’s doing in the States and it makes reengagement with the program at OSU all that more difficult.”
While the choice made sense medically and Taylor’s status as a student-athlete allowed her to remain in school and receive treatment, the Taylors admit that the reality of their child undergoing surgery, hormone therapy and radiation thousands of miles from home was often extremely difficult and emotionally draining. Complicating matters, when she received the diagnosis Mr. Taylor was one week away from deploying to Afghanistan for a six month peace-keeping mission.
Through the help of a travel insurance policy, Mrs. Taylor and Anna’s aunt were able to fly to Oregon to be with her as she underwent an operation to remove her thyroid April 2011.
“It was a blessing. I can’t even describe how lucky I was to have her there. Your parents have such an amazing way of calming you down and making sure that everything is OK and you know you’re safe when you’re in the presence of your parents,” Taylor said, “so, having her there, I knew that everything was going to be OK and if it wasn’t my mom was there to take care of it.”
Although Taylor was no longer practicing with the team, she remained a student at the university—completing her courses online. Taylor said the support she received from Ford and her teammates helped her through what she describes as the darkest period of her life.
In the fall, she resumed training with her team. Taylor was still very tired and not recovering as quickly as she hoped. After switching oncologists, it was determined she needed radiation therapy—a treatment that uses high-energy radiation to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells.
The treatment can be very scary and cause several side effects.
“The advice we were given by all the medical staff…was that this is not the sort of treatment that a young person should go through alone. They need a family member supporting them,” Mr. Taylor said.
Having traveled for both surgeries, the Taylors were beginning to feel the pinch of international travel costs.
“Anna was talking to me and she was feeling pretty scared about the whole radiation thing and she was homesick,” said Ford. Realizing the strain Taylor’s treatment placed on the family, Ford decided to approach the athletics department to see if Taylor’s parents would qualify for the Student Assistance Fund.
The Fund, distributed by the NCAA, assists student-athletes in meeting financial needs that arise in conjunction with participation in intercollegiate athletics. In Taylor’s case, the Fund paid for her father to fly to Oregon to be with her for treatment.
When Ford told Taylor the trip would be paid in full, Taylor broke down in tears.
“It was just one of those things that was an absolute Godsend and quite humbling really. The generosity and the willingness to make this available for us, it was really humbling,” said Mr. Taylor.
Added Mrs. Taylor, “We’re just so overwhelmingly grateful and thankful for the people who have come across our paths and have helped her and helped us. We really are indebted on so many different levels and in so many different ways.”
After the radiation, Taylor’s training improved by December and she never looked back.
“She was able to come through the season and do better than she did last year up to the point where she was sick,” said Ford.
Taylor is the stroke of the varsity boat—an unusual accomplishment for any rower, especially one that has fought and conquered cancer, Ford said.
“It’s taught me how to look after my body and how to be strong and how to be there for other people,” Taylor said. “It’s just really humbled me a lot—all the kindness that I’ve received—I can’t explain how much I owe them and coach Emily for everything she’s done for me.”