Cancer changed this rising star gymnast’s priorities and perspective forever

"Despite all the bad things that happen, you’re actually in control of how you feel about it," said Tamara O'Brien

Two years ago, Tamara O’Brien was a 21-year-old gymnast on the Canadian National Team and had just earned a medal at the World Games. She was on her way to the World Championships when she discovered a lump on the left side of her neck. It was this lump that would turn O’Brien — the rising star athlete she always saw herself as — into a new person, someone she would have to get to know all over again.

Her diagnosis became a pivotal moment for O’Brien that would change her priorities and her perspective. On the anniversary of her diagnosis, she shares her vulnerable and intimate story in Before & After: Cancer Diagnosis. 

UPDATE: Tamara O'Brien passed away on October 15, 2019.

Your story is really intimate and personal, why did you want to share it with everyone?

I think that illness is not talked about — especially in young people — as it should be. It’s just not that common that young people are getting diagnosed with cancer or going through really hard times.

When I got diagnosed, I’ve always been really vocal about it and I’ve always been very open and candid about what the experience is really like. So I just wanted to be able to share my story in a way that could maybe help others with whatever they’re facing in their lives, and maybe give them a little bit of a perspective boost because that’s one of the biggest gifts I’ve been given is that I have such a unique perspective and outlook on life due to being diagnosed.

I just wanted to be able to help others with the things I was struggling with and when Hannah [Jovin, director of the Before and After series] reached out to ask if I wanted to do this, I was really excited to be able to share my story on a bigger platform and stage to reach more people, to help in any way I could.

Do you find that sharing your story and being so vocal has given you anything?

It’s taught me a lot of things because when I first started doing this it was definitely more for myself to help myself cope with going through treatments and getting bad news and learning more about my disease. It was more of a coping mechanism for me and it always felt like that. But throughout sharing, I’ve learned that so many people take so much good away from what I share. Being able to learn that I have been impacting people the same way they have been impacting me is really powerful.

Now that we are coming up on the anniversary of your diagnosis, are there any thoughts that you’re having about it that you maybe didn’t share in the interview for the documentary?

Coming up to the two-year mark, it’s really reminding me of where I was two years ago, how much my life has changed, and now just being really grateful for the time I’m given, for whatever time is kinda left. It’s a weird date to come up to and it brings back all the feels of what my life looked like two years ago opposed to really what it looks like now, it’s really just incomprehensible.

I’m kind of hoping that when the date rolls around and this interview gets released that the date can maybe change into the date of like, look how many people got to see this and look how many people are now familiar with my story, and if it can help one person then I think that it’s worth it.

Would you mind sharing the news that you got? Was it related to your prognosis?

I found out that the disease is progressing at a really rapid rate. I learned that I have new tumour progression throughout my lungs, I’ve got about 13 brain tumours right now, the disease in my liver is really bad, and I’m having a lot of back problems from the disease in my spine and it’s also throughout my hip which is causing me a lot of pain as well.

This is all really new stuff because the last scan that I had was stable, so to learn the information that the drugs I was on are not working anymore, and the disease is progressing at a rate that’s really fast.

MORE: I was betrayed by my body

I’m moving into this next stage of like your hope changes when circumstances change. My hope is that we’re gonna try one more set of drugs and my hope is that it can slow down the disease progression to give me as much time as possible to enjoy with the people I love and maybe do a couple more epic things that I want to experience.

What are some of the epic things that you would do if you get the chance?

I really want to have a good birthday party this year, that’s one thing I would be really looking forward to. I have a lot of friends flying out to see me right now, so just getting to spend time with them, those are kinda the fun things. I’m currently in the hospital right now, I got broken out to go to Elton John last night, those are the fun things that come about with everything going on. Those are the things I hope to still experience.

What would you like to share with other young people diagnosed with cancer?

I want to share that it’s really hard but ultimately when you get faced with this really weird challenge in front of you and this really weird diagnosis that the best things you get to control are how you deal with it. Despite all the bad things that happen, you’re actually in control of how you feel about it and you get to take charge of your life in a way that is this whole new perspective. And I think that’s what you take out of it, right? Looking for the good within the bad.

From surviving a mass shooting to going to space, some events in life are so impactful, they change everything. Before & After dives into the pivotal moments in our lives that forever change who we are, and how we see the world.

Watch 9/11 Kids, a feature film about the untold story of life in America for the schoolchildren who were with President George W. Bush when he learned about the attack on the twin towers on the documentary Channel.


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