COLUMBIA FALLS — As families began preparing for the ceremony and gathered in the lobby outside the high school gymnasium, 17-year-old Taylor Peterson removed her long brown wig.
Her head was no longer completely bald, and she parted the short blonde hair that had started growing back into a mini mohawk. Splashes of amber marks tinted her neck, remnants from 10 weeks of radiation treatment. Her weight was back to normal now that her feeding tube was removed. Her legs were a little shaky, the symptom of nervousness but mostly two straight months lying in a hospital bed in Seattle.
Only a few weeks earlier she had begun exercising for the first time in months, regularly meeting early in the morning or after school with Wes Knutson, a health and physical education teacher at the high school and a former volleyball coach. Her one and only goal was to play in at least one more varsity volleyball match her senior year.
The first day of training with Knutson she struggled to complete even one lunge.
Last week Columbia Falls High School honored its seniors in volleyball and cross country at the final home match of the season.
A few days earlier Chuck Peterson stepped away from his job as a diesel mechanic in the oil fields near Williston, North Dakota, and drove almost 11 hours back home.
“I’m not going to say I can’t come and be with my daughter. No. I’ll be with her every step of the way no matter what,” he says. “I don’t care if I lose my job. She’s more important. Everything else is replaceable.”
The seniors began filing into the gymnasium with their families holding bright bouquets of flowers and balloons as their names were announced.
Taylor’s mother Michelle had glassy eyes as she waited in the lobby with Chuck and their daughter.
“It’s the best feeling ever, from where we came from last year to not knowing this summer if she was going to make it,” Michelle says. “She’s come a long ways with determination and pride.”
Taylor Peterson was the final introduction. The crowd erupted as she walked into the gym clutching her mother and father and wearing a decorated black T-shirt that read “The Ol’ Bald One.”
Knutson was right near the entrance, smiling and clapping.
As the family walked toward center court the announcer read Taylor’s words of advice: “No matter how hard life gets, always stay positive and keep focused on the bright side and push through. Never give up.”
Wildkat head coach Addy Connelly received telephone calls from Taylor all spring and summer. The Wildkats’ top returning starter, Taylor was excited to be back in time to play volleyball her senior year.
She had been living in Seattle for six months undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment. In June 2011 she discovered a cancerous tumor in her jaw. It was removed in August and Taylor was able to play her junior volleyball season and receive all-conference honors.
But the cancer returned. Last November she traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota with her family for treatment. Doctors removed a portion of Taylor’s jaw and three upper teeth.
That was the end of it, she thought. She returned home, ready to move on.
Two weeks later the phone rang. The cancer was still intact. Doctors told Taylor she’d immediately need to move to Seattle where she could receive intense treatment.
The cancer had started out as spindle cell carcinoma, then became rhabdomyocarcinoma, a muscle tissue cancer.
Her hair began falling out and it became a depressing symbol of her declining health, so she shaved it all off.
Last June, Taylor finally thought the cancer was gone. But before leaving doctors delivered worse news than before — another cancerous tumor had emerged in a lymph node in her neck — and the treatment was not working. Her chemotherapy and radiation was severely increased. After restarting enhanced treatment, she became extremely sick and was rushed to the intensive care unit at the hospital.
Doctors inserted a feeding tube and after returning to manageable health she could no longer eat. This went on for 10 weeks.
This fall Taylor returned to Columbia Falls for her senior year. She was frail but cancer free.
The cold weather chilled her bald head, so she bought a wig. Students teased her, not realizing why she needed to wear it. She even received a few prank phone calls.
“It was very emotional the first couple weeks but then I just got used to it and told myself they’re not worth it,” she says.
“I see life way differently now,” she adds. “I actually don’t take it for granted and I live every moment like it’s my last because there were times when I got put in the ICU and I was scared that it was my last.”
With the clock ticking on her senior season, she began meeting with Knutson. Two weeks ago she suited up for a junior varsity game to test her health. She lasted barely a set before needing to leave the game.
“I had thoughts where I didn’t think I would be able to play but then I’d just push myself and I started getting back into it,” she says. “I love the sport too much to not play. It was all I thought about when I was in Seattle.”
Columbia Falls’ senior night came against the two-time defending conference champs from Polson. Taylor started. She played throughout the first set with all the energy she had. Connelly kept a close eye, worried that Taylor would disregard health for passion.
Taylor came off the court for the final time and joined teammates chanting and cheering from the bench. It continued throughout the entire match.
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