Story and Photos by Corrie Coleman
On Wednesday, Aug. 16, Baylor freshman Rylie York moved into the second floor of Collins Residence Hall to begin a new chapter of her life. On Thursday, Aug. 17, she underwent surgery to remove the cancerous tumor in her neck. On Sunday night, Rylie was back in her dorm room to prepare for classes the next day.
Rylie was a high school senior in Round Rock in the fall of 2017, planning to attend Baylor the following August. When she began experiencing severe abdominal pain, she thought she might have a stomach ulcer.
Rylie found a lump in her neck a few months later. “I didn’t say anything about that to my parents until about a month later around Christmastime,” Rylie said. When antibiotics failed to lessen the swelling, the doctors decided removing the swollen lymph node was the best course of action.
“They removed it, and I thought nothing of it,” Rylie said. “I was totally downplaying it—thinking it wasn’t anything important. The pathology report didn’t come back for a while, and I had honestly forgotten about it.”
On Jan. 25, 2018, five days after Rylie’s 18th birthday, the pathology reports came back. “I pulled into my driveway after school and my parents were standing there. I thought, ‘This is weird,’” Rylie said. “Before I could get out of my car, they were both at my window. They said, ‘We want you to know that everything is going to be OK. But you have lymphoma.’ I didn’t know what to think. I was completely dumbfounded. I remember just staring at my dashboard.”
Rylie’s Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was stage four cancer. The disease attacking her white blood cells and immune system was not only in the lymph nodes in her neck—It had spread to her chest and abdomen. “In that moment, sitting in that doctor’s office, I was like, ‘I’m going to die,’” Rylie said.
Heidi York, Rylie’s mother, described the way the diagnosis rattled the family’s life. “It just turns your whole life upside-down in a matter of a few minutes,” Heidi said. “We’ve been walking a road and a journey these past nine months that you can’t possibly see coming.”
The Yorks were almost immediately referred to Dr. ZoAnne Dreyer, an experienced pediatric oncologist at Texas Children’s Cancer Center in Houston. “Rylie never appeared to be scared,” Dreyer recalled. “She just said, ‘OK, let’s get it done. I have things to do.’”
Heidi remembers the same thing about her daughter. “Very quickly, her question became, ‘How long is this treatment going to take, and am I going to get to go to Baylor?’”
Heidi said Dreyer’s encouragement throughout the year of treatment was impactful on the York family. “I can’t imagine us not getting connected with Dr. Dreyer,” she said. “Dr. Dreyer kept saying, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to get [Rylie] well and ready to move into Baylor in August.’”
After her diagnosis, Rylie quickly began intense chemotherapy. “I couldn’t even get shots when I was 12. I had to have someone hold my hand,” Rylie laughed. “I’ve had to grow a lot since then.”
After about a week of treatment, Rylie began losing her hair, something that was unexpectedly difficult for her. “[My hair] is what I thought was most beautiful about myself before all of this,” Rylie said. “I don’t know why I was so caught up with my hair.”
Instead of watching her hair gradually fall out, Rylie decided she would shave it. “It was cool and crazy. I was now the ‘bald girl’ that I never thought I would be,” Rylie said. “But I eventually got used to it, and I loved being bald.”
Rylie said this experience gave her a new perspective on hair—both her own and others’. “Every time someone tells me, ‘I wouldn’t look good bald,’ I tell them, ‘Yes you would,’” she said. “The world just focuses so much on things like hair… It’s a big step to not have something that makes you fit in and look normal, but I think everyone would look good bald.”
In May 2018, nearly four months after her first diagnosis, Rylie completed chemotherapy treatment. When her scans came back, she was cancer-free. A month later, after radiation treatment, she was officially in remission.
“I got about a month of freedom. My family went on vacation, I prepared to come to Baylor, and I went on a mission trip,” Rylie said.
No one expected the cancer to return. In early August, while shopping with her mom for new school clothes, Rylie discovered another lump in her neck. On Aug. 12, four days before she was scheduled to move to Baylor, she found out the cancer had returned in her clavicle.
The York family suddenly faced a difficult choice. “I had to decide if I was even going to come to Baylor, which was awful,” Rylie said.
The family ultimately decided that Rylie would be able to attend college. “That was a really, really tough and emotional time for everybody. But in [Rylie’s] usual style, she handled it,” Dreyer said. “She and her parents were like, ‘We’re moving her in, and we’ll figure it out from there.’”
The York family’s decision triggered great support from the Baylor community. “Everyone rallied around us to help us get connected to the right people and get everything figured out,” Heidi said. “We kept getting calls from people at Baylor saying, ‘Everyone is going to do everything we can to keep Rylie here and keep her healthy.’”
Because the cancer was only in her clavicle, Rylie’s doctors decided she would undergo “chemo lite,” a milder form of chemotherapy than the treatment she underwent in the spring. Nearly every Friday throughout the semester, Rylie and her mother drove to Texas Children’s Cancer Center in Houston for chemotherapy treatment.
Rylie said she didn’t feel sick on most days. “When I’m feeling well, I feel pretty normal. I don’t normally start feeling down about things until hours before I know I’m about to get treated,” she said. “I can live a normal week and not feel sick other than the fact that I know it’s there.”
Although her semester was busy, Rylie said she has felt encouraged throughout her time at Baylor. “I’ve been able to keep up with my classes, but sometimes I don’t know how I do it,” she said. “I’m happiest when I’m busiest. Getting back into a routine and getting back into school makes me happy.”
Rylie said she especially feels encouraged because Baylor students and professors have rallied behind her throughout her journey. “Baylor has been a light through all of it. I can’t imagine doing it again and not being here,” Rylie said. “There’s been an overwhelming feeling of connection and support. Baylor is special, and it makes everything a hundred times easier.”
Rylie’s positive college experiences were particularly influenced by the close friendships she made early on. “The night before I started my first day of chemo, all the girls on my hall in Collins decorated my room and surprised me. They had posters and streamers and balloons. My door is still decorated with everything,” she said. “I didn’t even know these girls for two weeks, and they were just pouring themselves into making sure I’m OK. I’ve found great friends.”
Rylie said she struggled with a fear of the unknown before she experienced cancer but now finds comfort in focusing on the present. “It was like God came in and said to me, ‘Forget everything you’ve planned. This is all out of your control, and you don’t have a choice.’ Because I wanted to control everything,” Rylie said. “I think I deal with [fear] the best when I focus on what’s happening now. Let’s kill cancer today. Let’s be positive today.”
In mid-October, Rylie underwent a PET scan to gauge how well the chemotherapy was working. The next week, she received a text from Dr. Dreyer that read, “PET is perfect.” The cancer was gone.
Although Rylie is now cancer-free, she will continue radiation treatment until mid-December.
Rylie said her cancer diagnosis brought her joy as well as struggle. “I wish people knew that there is both destruction and beauty in cancer. It forms bonds that I never thought I would build,” Rylie said. “There’s so much emotion and sadness and hopelessness—but there’s also hope.”
Rylie said cancer taught her the value of self-expression, gratitude and living in the present moment. “Going through this, and knowing that your days are short, and anything could happen at any moment, I think it’s so important to just tell people what’s on your mind,” Rylie said. “I wish people knew the value of a day.”
Despite the troubles she has faced, Rylie said the past nine months additionally shaped her into a more interesting and determined person. “I wouldn’t wish my diagnosis on anyone, but I know that it’s made me a better person,” she said. “Rylie before cancer was boring. Life before all of it was boring, and now it’s hard, but I have a purpose, and I know what my purpose is.”
According to Dreyer, though painful and frightening, cancer creates opportunities to apply courage and strength to life. “It’s the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and all these blessings and hardships wrapped up into one,” she said. “We’ll never look at life the same after coming through this. We’ll never be the people that we were on Jan. 25, 2018. And that’s a good thing.”
From the moment she received her diagnosis, Rylie knew cancer was something she was prepared for.
“I knew that night, with my family and friends all around me, that everything was going to be OK,” she said. “I’m supposed to go through this so that I can benefit others through the process. As weird as it sounds, I know confidently that this is what I was born for.”