I was betrayed by my body

I was betrayed by my body

'Skin cancer worked its way into my lymph nodes. I was devastated.'

By Tamara O'Brien for CBC Sports
April 4, 2018

When I walked into the Centennial Hall for the World Games final last July, I had no idea what to expect.

So many months of preparation for this exact moment: I experienced every feeling you could think of. Excitement that it was finally here was at the top of my list. My body was in muscle memory mode, and all I had to do was make sure my head was strong enough to handle the pressure of competition.

Capturing a silver medal at the World Games was a career-high for Canadian trampoline athlete Tamara O’Brien. (International Gymnastics Federation) Capturing a silver medal at the World Games was a career-high for Canadian trampoline athlete Tamara O’Brien. (International Gymnastics Federation)

The lights were so hot as I walked into the arena. I was sweating profusely. I was so proud to be wearing the Maple Leaf. We all got two practice runs and I felt I was peaking in that moment. I was ready to show the world the passes I had put together. It was the highest degree of difficulty I had ever attempted in competition. I was in the best shape I have ever been in, physically and mentally.

I stepped on the floor for my first run. My name was called, and I stood at the end of the runway, calming myself down. I started running and the next thing you know I was flipping and landing with one tiny step. The moment was so exciting, but I had to put it aside to focus on my second routine. I saved the best for last.

I walked up to the runway for the last time of this competition. I had visualized this moment so many times that I knew it was going to be a good routine. I saluted to the judges and started running, flipping and landing again with one small step. In that moment it was pure relief, excitement, and the thought of “I did it.” I walked over to the Kiss and Cry booth with my coach, Curt Dewolff, and we just looked at each other. We both knew the moment was extremely special.


I achieved the best score of my career. I placed second at the highest competition in my sport —double mini trampoline. I look at that medal today and am still amazed. It was like the whole experience was a dream, but it really happened.


Call from hell

I came home a week later, after a much-needed vacation to the south of France. Life resumed as usual. I was back at work, back to training and getting ready to head to the world championships in November to improve my results from silver to gold.

The skin cancer diagnosis stunned O’Brien to her core. (Submitted by Tamara O’Brien) The skin cancer diagnosis stunned O’Brien to her core. (Submitted by Tamara O’Brien)

I was watching TV with my hand on my chin, and that’s when I noticed a lump. I kept feeling it and it seemed out of place. I asked friends if they had anything similar, maybe thinking it had always been there. A doctor’s trip later, further information was needed, so she sent me for an ultrasound. Results from the ultrasound determined I needed a biopsy.

The whole ordeal was confusing, but I didn’t think about it much. It wasn’t affecting my everyday life. I was training still, preparing for the world championships. A day after my biopsy, I was heading to competition in Spain. In retrospect, it was a blessing. I had something else to focus on rather than waiting for results. I placed second in my competition in Spain and was feeling excited: the world championships were just around the corner. The day after I returned home, I received a call from my doctor’s office. They wanted to see me the following day.

Friday, Oct. 13, 2017 changed my life forever. I walked into the office with my boyfriend. We waited for me to be called and I walked into the exam room alone. My doctor asked, “is that your partner out there?” I said yes, and he explained it might be better if we heard this information together. As my boyfriend walked in, my doctor proceeded to explain the results. Melanoma. Skin cancer that had worked its way into my lymph nodes. I was devastated.


I was profoundly dumbfounded. I thought I was dreaming. How could I have cancer? I’m 20, I’m an athlete and I’m healthy. You’re telling me I have a disease that could kill me? Can I still compete in the world championships? How do I tell my family? How do I tell my friends? How bad is this? My life was flashing before my eyes and I was hysterical. My doctor explained that surgery would be the next step. They would remove all the lymph nodes in the left side of my neck.

I had a CT scan a week later and met my surgeon a week after that. The procedure was set for two days after my appointment with the surgeon. In that moment, I realized the world championships weren’t going to happen. It was a strange feeling because of course I was disappointed, but this was a lot more important. This was bigger than a competition, bigger than anything I had ever faced in my life.

It was excruciatingly painful, and it ended up being the first of five surgeries on my neck. I had a drainage tube on the left side of my neck. I had blood flowing from the incision, and to be frank, I was drugged up. I stayed the night in downtown Vancouver’s St. Paul’s hospital, trying to understand how my body had failed me so badly.


Three months earlier I was in the best shape of my life, performing at the highest competitive level, winning silver. How am I sitting in a hospital bed right now with cancer? The worst part is, I had no control over any of it. I couldn’t work out to make my body stronger to fight this. It was something my body couldn’t even detect. I just thought this kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like me. It doesn’t happen to young, fit healthy women. But it did.


'Shaken to my core'

The first surgery was Oct. 25. It was successful. They got the lymph nodes out on the left side of my neck. Five of them tested positive for melanoma, including the main tumour. I was set to go on a clinical trial for an immunotherapy treatment.

Cancer hasn’t stopped O’Brien from dreaming big. (Submitted by Tamara O’Brien) Cancer hasn’t stopped O’Brien from dreaming big. (Submitted by Tamara O’Brien)

Unfortunately, there is no funded immunotherapy treatment through our health care system for a resected melanoma. So, the clinical trial was my only option to get my hands on this treatment. In December, another lump showed up under my chin. Melanoma, again. I had my second surgery Jan. 8.

But the tumour had grown to the skin level, and I would need a third surgery. This was on January 25. They didn’t get it all this time. My fourth surgery was March 9 and again, they didn’t get it all. My final surgery happened on March 16. They still couldn’t get all the cancer out and it was deemed a non resectable cancer.

So here I am, waiting for things to get going. Still feeling betrayed by my body. Still dreaming of competing at the level I was at before. But my life has changed. I was shaken to my core by my diagnosis, and I’m still trying to figure it out.

I realize that this chapter in my life may be longer than I intended. My story is still being written every single day. I am currently waiting for treatment, as they can’t take this cancer out surgically. No more clinical trials.  So, we form a plan and take things one day at a time. Although I went from being on the top of my game, ranked No. 1 in Canada, to quite literally fighting for my life, I am thankful. I am thankful for how much I have accomplished and experienced in my 21 years of being here. I’m thankful to be alive. I’m thankful for my family, friends, boyfriend, coaches, teammates and my community, for supporting me through this fight.


Cancer affects not only the person fighting it but everyone around that individual. My goal is to live the best life possible, to chose happiness and to one day get back on that trampoline and start writing the next chapter in my sporting career.

Cancer has empowered me to be stronger and appreciate everything life has to offer, and I hope my story can help you realize the same. I’m aiming to win this battle with cancer — second place will not be an option for me.

(Top large photo by Dave Holland/ Gymnastics Canada; Middle and bottom large photos by International Gymnastics Federation)

10 quick answers from Tamara O'Brien

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: The Hunger Games.

Q: Must-listen Podcast? 
A: Off The Vine with Kaitlyn Bristowe.

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: Maybe not advice, but I live by always giving 100 per cent towards something because there's no point of doing it otherwise.

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Q: What word or phrase do you overuse? 
A: Are you kidding me?

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: I wish I wasn't so awkward meeting new people.

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: You wouldn't guess I listen to hardcore rap to get pumped up to compete.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite? 
A: Rupaul, Ellen, Oprah, Katy Perry, Jennifer Lawrence and Jimmy Fallon.  

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Videos of soldiers returning home surprising their families...it just gets me every time.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish? 
A: To be on Big Brother Canada.

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