Kelsey Tainsh has survived cancer—twice.
The 21-year-old, of Winter Park, Fla., had her first brain tumor when she was just 5. Her parents, who are both doctors, realized there was something wrong when she started to run into walls and her headaches got worse. One day her mother placed a cookie on the counter for her, and Kelsey could not see it.
“I knew it was something serious,” said her mother, Cynthia Tainsh, a neurologist. “Until we knew what type of tumor it was, it was really terrifying.”
Because Kelsey was so young, she did not realize what a brain tumor was and what was going to happen. She remembers walking down the hospital hallway with her parents and doctor. Once she got into the room, she got scared because she knew something was wrong.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she admitted.
After surgery and radiation at the Children’s Hospital Boston, Kelsey returned to her everyday life. She became a motivational speaker and a fierce athlete who ranked third in the world for girls’ wakeboarding and a varsity lightweight rower for her high school crew team.
There seemed to be nothing wrong until she turned 15. She started getting intense migraines and had a bad taste in her mouth when her face turned red, which she later discovered to be seizures. During a routine MRI check, doctors found another brain tumor.
She had the second surgery almost to the same day as the first one 10 years ago. The same doctors who worked on her when she was 5 were working on her this time, too.
When she got to the hospital, she did all the routine tests. She went into the bathroom to put on her robe and started crying.
“I think it finally all hit me at that point,” she said. “When you’re in the bathroom putting on a robe before you go have surgery, you finally realize that it’s happening.”
Before she left the bathroom, she composed herself because she did not want her parents to see her upset.
The exact time is unclear, but either during or after surgery she had a stroke. The surgeons warned it might be a possible complication due to blood vessels in the area of operation.
When Kelsey woke up, the right side of her body was completely paralyzed. She had a total facial droop; she could not walk and was barely able to speak.
When she came to and realized what had happened, her immediate thought was, “I’m going to get through this.”
Her journey to recovery began.
After surgery, she had to keep her eyes closed sometimes because they hurt, and her vision was blurry. But every morning, her father would get up early and feed her chocolate chip pancakes.
“That’s how much he loved me,” she said. “I have the best family in the world.”
Kelsey has pilocytic astrocytoma or juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma. It is a brain tumor that usually affects children and young adults. According to the American Cancer Society, it typically occurs in the cerebellum but can also occur in other areas such as the optic nerve or brain stem. One out of five brain tumors in children account for it. Some symptoms include headache, vomiting, fatigue and difficulty with balance and coordination.
Kelsey’s progress in the first two years was slow but steady, Cynthia said. She eventually began to travel to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injuries, to further her progress. She went from being in a wheel chair, to a walker, to a cane and then on her own two feet again. Back in Orlando, Fla., Kelsey’s physical therapist was Dave Nitti.
“She was such a hard worker,” Nitti said. “It was really refreshing to work with someone who wanted to get better that bad.”
Nitti worked professionally with her for about six months, but he has worked with her independently for years.
“I think she came to me with advice, but I always came away with the inspiration,” he said. “To this day, I’ve never heard her once say, ‘Why me?’ She’s just not that kind of person. It happened, she’s going to deal with it and move forward.”
If there is something Kelsey cannot do with her right hand, she will find a way around it and do it with her left, Nitti said.
With the support of her friends, family and physical therapy she is able to once again run, swim and even surf and row.
“You can do anything in your life if you believe in yourself,” Kelsey said. “If you’re down, get back up.”
One of the best days in her life was when she was finally able to put her hair up by herself again. A therapist said they were not sure she could to do it, but on that same day, she did.
“At that point I was 17 years old,” she said. “I could pretty much do everything else by myself, but I would always have to ask someone else to put my hair up in a ponytail, and I was sick of it. So I went into therapy one day and was like, ‘Today I’m going learn to put my hair in a ponytail.’ Now I do it with a [thin elastic] scrunchie.”
Kelsey may be living with a disability, but it does not define her. Although she had to travel a lot during high school to receive physical therapy in Atlanta, and as a result took some classes online, she still graduated on time with honors.
“People did not think I would be able to do that,” she admitted.
She is now a recreation and event management junior at the University of Florida with a 3.96 GPA. She has had the opportunity to study aboard four times in Costa Rica, twice in Paris, and she has even ventured to Greece.
The experiences in life that she has overcome have made her realize she wants to dedicate her life to helping others. She remains a motivational speaker and hopes to work with a non-profit organization in the future.
“Life is short,” she said. “You never know when something’s going to happen to you. You shouldn’t look at life thinking that, but you should take every day as one day at a time.”
Kelsey has thought about what her life would be like if she never had cancer, but those thoughts are quickly dismissed by the realization of how many people she has been able to help because of it. She has no regrets and would not look at what happened to her as a bad thing because it isn’t one, she reassured.
“I suppose there’s a possibility that my brain tumor could come back,” she said. “It’s not something I think about on a daily basis. It’s one more reason why I live my life happy and to the fullest.”
To book Kelsey for a speaking arrangement, visit www.kelseytainsh.com.