At age 13, Taylor Dawson was diagnosed with osteosarcoma on her C7 vertebra, an aggressive bone cancer in a rare location. She wrote this letter to her younger self — the self that had just been diagnosed — and to all young people with a serious medical condition. Her beautiful reflection won the 2016 Andre Sobel Award, a national essay contest for teen survivors of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. The purpose of the Award is for young people who are newly diagnosed to hear advice and wisdom in the form of a “Letter to a Friend”, written by a young survivor who has been through similar challenges. The 2017 Andre Sobel Award is accepting entries through January 31, 2017. For more information and submission guidelines, please visit the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation. Taylor’s wish is that young readers will substitute the word “cancer” for any other life trial. She says, “Our challenges and ability to overcome is what connects us as humans.”

Taylor Dawson

Taylor Dawson, osteosarcoma survivor and winner of the 2016 Andre Sobel Award

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Dear Little Tay,

I suppose by now you have found out the diagnosis. Don’t be afraid to say it, it is a word that holds no power (unless you allow it to). Cancer is not an enemy it is a battleground. You may begin to hear people refer to you as a warrior, but you do not become a warrior simply by being diagnosed. You do not even become a warrior when you enter into remission. Indeed, cancer is an opportunity to become a warrior and the diagnosis is the entrance into the fight.

You become a warrior when you find joy in the fight. Then, you become a light in the darkness and others will be drawn to you and join the good fight.

I must admit, I did not become a warrior until about 6 years after being diagnosed.

A great array of emotions will hit you in waves, and I encourage you to feel them as they come. It is better to feel sadness rather than to become cold and it is better to be angry rather than to become empty. As I said earlier, they come in waves so allow them to pass. Holding on to one emotion too tight causes you to slip past mourning and enter into depression. These emotions are markers, or tests. As you overcome each one you step closer to finding the joy.

Once you find this joy, this golden treasure, nothing will hold you down. No treatment plan, no complication, no surgery… you will feel the freedom of flight that so many in this world are looking for. You will laugh without fear of the future and you will fly on wings like eagles. I encourage you to open your eyes and experience all that this part of your life has to offer. Despite the overwhelming uncertainty, this phase of your life will end. In no way can it last forever. It. Is. Temporary. In the quite moments reflect, and in the noisy moments listen. In doing so I hope that you will discover a deep inner stillness. A time when the waves of emotions no longer rock you, and you find yourself growing stronger then before your diagnosis.

In the moments of reflection, when everyone else is sleeping and you can’t seem to drift asleep, a thought will pop into your head… “Why me?” I assure you this question is a stinger. It has no answer and yet a thousand options that could satisfy (if only for a moment). The best answer I have discovered was described earlier. You have been selected to go into battle, a test of a life.

The victors are the ones who become the light and change the world.

I know, this is all too serious. Talk of battlegrounds and emotions can be a tad exhausting. But I wanted you to know that you have a powerful resource that you can tap into. Your body is so strong and resilient! It is the mind that can be tricked though, and that is why I wanted to share all that I could in that regard.

There is a rare breed out in this world: we are the dreamers, and believers. We see things not as they are, but as they could be. And we find magic in the transformation. While you are in this stage of your life, there is no reason to put your dreams on hold. In fact, striving towards them is a part of the recovery plan! How wonderful. Smile and remember that you now have the opportunity to be an inspiration. Are you a painter, or musician, or a mathematician? Use this time to cultivate your talents. Inspire your friends and family. I dare say that they are facing a very difficult challenge right now. For they have no way to help or relate to you and as I imagine that is the one thing that they wish to do most for you. It can be discouraging for them, no way to help. They might even become distant because of this. It is not that they do not wish to be around you, they feel helpless and that is a very hard thing to deal with. Encourage them that it is okay! Their job is not to make you feel better, no one can make you do anything without becoming manipulative. Their job is to be kind, and in return you are to be thankful. Encourage them by letting your friends and family know how you truly feel and remind them that a listening ear goes further then they might believe.

More on the warrior: you now know what it takes to become a warrior but what does one look like? Do they hail a sword in the air, yelling as they enter onto the field? Perhaps at times this is what one may look like. However, I am sure that you have passed a few in your lifetime without even knowing it.

The warrior does stand strong, shoulders back, and mind sharp. They have a deep kindness in their eyes and a gentle spirit. A warrior loves deeply, and has acquired a deep sense of self-control. They are patience in the waiting and their steps faithfully march forward. Their peace transcends their circumstances. A warrior is not soon developed. But through time, trials, and hardships they are cultivated.

I know you are young, and I also know that you have a wit about you. To a grown up, this letter might seem too mature. And yet, I do believe that my words will be well received by you. Read me once, read me twice, but go ahead and take my advice.

My dream, most assuredly is to see a great deal more world changers. To pass by and catch your glance and think, “Ah, there you are. Welcome.”

I hope that you join in the fight against the darkness, and live.

See you on the other side.

Taylor Dawson
Taylor's osteosarcoma diagnosis at age 13 led to extensive rehab, experimental surgeries, and medication, along with a year of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation. The compression on her spine caused extreme nerve damage, especially to her right arm rendering her unable to even wiggle her fingers. Five years later, she entered into remission with a neck scar and a slight hand tremor left as the only remaining traces of cancer. In 2016 Taylor graduated from college with a degree in Graphic Design. She intends to pursue an MFA in Design Management. She loves spending her time volunteering with children, reading fairy tales, cuddling with her dog Tillie, or writing letters via snail mail.

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