Tamara O’Brien thought her connection to the gymnastics career she loved was finished and her medal-winning days done after being diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma.
But the example set by another young adult who battled cancer — and succumbed to the disease — showed her that those fears were unfounded and imbued her with the confidence to forge ahead.
Here's what happened:
In the fall of 2017, after returning from a competition in Spain, O'Brien was diagnosed with cancer. Her surgeon subsequently removed 23 lymph nodes, four of them showing signs of melanoma. She has since undergone a variety of treatments but, last spring, a new CT scan showed signs of cancer in her groin, liver, ribs and spine. Her new diagnosis: Stage 4.
Last fall, Danielle Schroeder, one of O’Brien’s counsellors at the Callanish Society, a support organization for young adults dealing with a cancer diagnosis, told her about a new foundation that offers a special experience to people like her enduring a life-threatening illness.
The Forward Foundation was started by Christopher Cayford, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 when he was 27 years old, and died from the disease last March. An active recreational hockey player in Richmond until he got sick, Cayford saw a gap in the support system that offered plenty of opportunities for children and adolescents going through trying medical challenges to have life-affirming experiences, but little for young adults like himself.
Schroeder suggested O’Brien apply to be the foundation’s first recipient of such an experience.
At first, the Coquitlam gymnast who competed for New Westminster's Shasta Trampoline Club and had won medals at several international competitions, including a silver in double mini-trampoline at the World Games in Poland just before she got sick, was reluctant.
“I couldn’t think of what I wanted,” O’Brien said, adding a GoFundMe campaign last year that raised $16,000 had given her the financial means to pursue a life experience or two on her own if she so desired. As well, any idea that came to mind seemed more about comforting whomever she chose as her travel companion.
Then, as O’Brien lay in bed one night, it came to her.
She sat up and retrieved the application form from her nightstand. She wrote that she wanted to attend the World Trampoline Gymnastics Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia, and she wanted to take her friend and teammate, Pam Kriangkum, from Edmonton.
“This is about me,” O’Brien said of her choice. “I’m allowed to be selfish.”
Two days after she'd submitted her application, the Forward Foundation contacted O’Brien to tell her she’d been approved. But with the Worlds just a month away, time was short to arrange the necessary visas, book flights and hotels — and there was the small matter of informing Kriangkum.
Embarking on the long journey to Edmonton, then Amsterdam and on to St. Petersburg, O’Brien kept her expectations in check. She said she chose going to the Worlds so she could close the door on her athletic career.
“My intention was to be able to say 'goodbye,'” she said, adding, “I was really scared about it.”
O’Brien said she didn’t know how the gymnasts would react to her presence. She didn’t want to be a distraction, she didn’t want to make them sad, “I just wanted to be there and watch."
A missed connection in Amsterdam delayed the travelling companions’ arrival in Russia. O’Brien and her friend landed in Russia exhausted but Kriangkum told her they had to attend Team Canada’s dinner that night because O’Brien had been chosen to be their flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies.
O’Brien said she was humbled by the news. She’d carried Canada’s flag at international competitions before, “but it was really different this time.”
When she entered the hotel’s banquet room, she got another surprise. The entire Canadian delegation rose to their feet, clapping, and they were all wearing shirts that said: “We jump for Tamara.”
O’Brien was overwhelmed.
“For months, I’d felt I had lost my community, but now I felt like every single one of them was there with me.”
During the competition, O’Brien had accreditation that allowed her to be on the floor with her teammates, or watch from the stands. The experience felt both familiar and foreign.
“I felt like I belonged there, like I was injured but I couldn’t compete,” she said. “I was almost relieved not to be competing because I hadn’t trained in a year.”
O’Brien admitted her nerves ratcheted up for the double mini-trampoline competition, her specialty. But being able to see her friends and competitors do well made her proud.
“I wasn’t jealous of everybody,” she said. “I was so happy for their success.”
At the end of the four-day competition at the St. Petersburg Sports and Concert Complex, O’Brien and Kriangkum were able to secure tickets to the athletes’ banquet, a formal affair for all the competitors to let their hair down and blow out the week’s stresses.
But first, Kriangkum informed O’Brien, they had to make a pitstop at Canada’s team meeting.
There, O’Brien was called to the front of the gathering by two-time Olympic gold medalist Rosie McLennan, who thanked her for coming to support the team and assured her the trampoline community would always be with her. Then, McLennan handed O’Brien a small wooden box. In it was a bronze medal McLennan and the rest of Team Canada had won in the team competition, the first time such an event had been contested at the world championships. The team had decided O’Brien, had she been healthy, would have helped the team earn that medal, and McLennan had volunteered to give up hers.
“It was a huge affirmation,” O’Brien said. “It was this complete sense of proving me wrong about my community being lost to me.”
Since returning from the championships last November, O’Brien said she has had plenty of time to absorb the enormity and importance of her experience, her ongoing place in the gymnastics community and the unique challenges of being a young adult with cancer.
“We’re the forgotten generation of cancer,” she said, adding her trip to Russia has emboldened her because now she knows she can travel. She recently visited Las Vegas and next month, she’s headed for a two-week trip around Europe with her boyfriend.
“I’ve learned to go after what I want to do instead of living in fear of the ‘what ifs.’”
• To learn more about the Forward Foundation, go to www.forwardfoundation.ca. To follow O’Brien’s blog about her journey with cancer, go to https://tamarakobrien.wordpress.com.