Diagnosis a new battle for Coquitlam gymnast

Tamara O’Brien leapt to the top of her sport. Then the Coquitlam trampoline gymnast noticed an odd lump beneath her chin, and her competitive battle in the gym became a fight for her life.

O’Brien, 21, who trains with the Shasta Trampoline Club in New Westminster, was preparing for an international competition in Spain. In July, 2017, she’d won a silver medal in the women’s double mini-trampoline at the World Games in Poland. Her next goal was competing for Canada at the 2017 world championships, which would take place in November in Sofia, Bulgaria.

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But as O’Brien relaxed in her Coquitlam home one evening watching TV, her hand brushed a hard, little growth under her chin.

At first, she thought nothing of it. Perhaps it had always been there? Maybe it was just an inflammation and it would go away on its own?

When the lump was still there a few days later, O’Brien fretted. A year earlier, she’d had a cancerous mole removed so she knew such abnormalities had to be taken seriously.

O’Brien made an appointment to see her doctor who sent her for an ultrasound and then a biopsy.

The careful attention from doctors worried O’Brien but, she said, “I didn’t think it was going to be horrible.”

But when her dermatologist called upon her return from Spain, that’s just what the news was. He asked her to come to his office, and bring someone along. The lump was cancerous. It was Oct. 13 — a Friday, no less.

Tough decision

O’Brien said because of her previous brush with cancer, she wasn’t overly shocked at the news.

“I had a gut feeling,” she said, “but I thought it was over.”

O’Brien’s more immediate concern, though, was whether to have surgery right away, or postpone it until after the World’s in Bulgaria. She was still training, she felt great, she was in the best physical condition of her life.

O’Brien kept the news to a tight circle of friends and family, opting not to inform her coaches or Gymnastics Canada just yet.

When an opportunity for the operation suddenly opened at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, O’Brien’s decision was made for her. She begged off the national team for “medical reasons.”

“I didn’t want people at the World’s to talk,” O Brien said.

The surgeon removed 23 lymph nodes from O’Brien’s neck. Four of them showed signs of cancer — stage 3 melanoma.

O’Brien, whose face was left partially paralyzed by the surgery, put her training on hold, contacted Gymnastics Canada and wrote an anguished post on her Facebook page.

“Gymnastics was kind of irrelevant,” O’Brien said. “I knew this was much bigger than anything else I would go through.”

Still, she admitted, following the results of the world championships online was difficult.

“It was a bummer to sit at home while everyone was competing,” she said.

The weeks and months that followed were a cascade of doctor’s appointments, tough decisions and more bad news.

O’Brien opted to participate in a clinical trial for a new imuunotherapy treatment regime, but when a biopsy of a new bump she noticed last December indicated more cancer and another operation last January, she missed her window.

New tumours

Further operations followed later that month and last March as doctors chased down new tumours.

“When people think of cancer, they think of it in black and white — you get diagnosed, you get treatment and you get better,” O’Brien said. “But it’s more complicated than that.”

And it was about to get even more so.

A new CT scan last spring showed signs of cancer in O’Brien’s groin, liver, ribs and spine. Her diagnosis was now Stage 4.

“That was the first time it got real,” she said. “I don’t know how I got through that day.”

The new diagnosis cast O’Brien’s notions about returning to gymnastics in doubt.

“I thought I would be out for a year,” she said.

It also meant O’Brien would require chemotherapy treatment and all the potential side effects that come with it.

Her first three injections of the drug cocktail went well but the fourth sent O’Brien to the hospital twice with high fevers. Then another CT scan showed further progression of the disease.

Uncertain future

When a sore back felled O’Brien for a month last summer, her doctor determined a tumour in her spine was now invading her vertebrae and prescribed radiation treatment.

“I really had to ask is this working,” said O’Brien, who had to quit her two jobs she used to support herself. “It was very surreal.”

O’Brien’s doctors switched gears again, targeting her tumours with very specific drugs she ingested orally every day. She got sick in the second week with nausea, fever and a rash and the regime was put on hold.

That’s where O’Brien is today, awaiting a new plan of attack and reflecting on what she’s endured the past year. 

Last October O’Brien was preparing to compete on the world stage, her path forward in life and in the gym seemingly stretching out in front of her just as she’d been training for for so many years. Now her future is uncertain, at best.

“You get a cancer diagnosis and then you think what will happen to my life,” she said. “I know with Stage 4 it usually ends one way.”

Accepting that and learning how to move forward is a battle O’Brien now fights every hour of every day. To stay connected with her gymnastics community, she’s a volunteer coach at Shasta. 

“It’s cool to be back in the community where I can feel useful,” she said. “I have all this knowledge I feel is useless if I don’t get to go in the gym.”

O’Brien’s also taking classes at Douglas College with an eye to earning her degree in social work.

“It’s hard to fall on the side of feeling helpless,” she said.

O’Brien credits support she’s received from her participation in Vancouver’s Callanish Society as the catalyst for dealing with what she’s lost and forging a new path.

“I went from being on top of the world to fighting for my life,” O’Brien said. “I always used to be the trampolinist and now I’m the girl with cancer.”

• O’Brien keeps a blog of her journey with cancer at https://tamarakobrien.wordpress.com. To learn more about the Callanish Society, go to https://www.callanish.org. There’s also a gofundme campaign to help O’Brien cope with some of the financial challenges of her disease https://www.gofundme.com/i-push-4-tamara-o039brien.


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