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Cancer survivor copes with paralysis, lives life to the fullest

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Posted: Monday, October 31, 2011 12:22 am

Don't tell Kelsey Tainsh there's something she can't do.

At age 5, she became a cancer survivor after undergoing surgery and radiation to remove a tumor from her brain.

By 11, she began motivational speaking and had founded an organization that brings puppies into children's hospitals.

By 13, she had acted in the movie "Rumor Has It..." with Jennifer Aniston and Mark Ruffalo, as well as an episode of "Desperate Housewives" and an episode of "Gilmore Girls."

By the time she was 15, she was a state-champion rower with the Winter Park High School crew team and ranked third in the world for girls' wakeboarding.

Then her tumor came back.

During her second brain surgery - this one 10 hours long - she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on the right side of her body.

People started telling her all the things she'd never do. Kelsey, now a 21-year-old recreation and event management junior at UF, started proving them wrong.

Over the past six years, Kelsey has learned to walk again. She's re-learned how to eat and write and run and swim and row and put her hair into a ponytail. All milestones.

"I always knew [the paralysis] would be temporary for Kelsey. She's a fighter," said Valerie Tainsh, Kelsey's sister.

The Tainshs are a family of seven. Cynthia and Robert Tainsh have a set of twins, Laurel and Rob, and a set of triplets, Erica, Kelsey and Valerie.

The family breeds border collies and golden retrievers. At one point, they had 21 puppies running around their lakefront home.

The nine beds in their house, most of them bunks, are usually always full with friends or family members. Erica, Kelsey and Valerie have lived together all three years at UF, even braving a triple dorm in Murphree Hall during their sophomore year.

They share the same best friend, the same clothes and, throughout high school, many of the same classes.

In fact, it was in a math class Erica and Kelsey had their sophomore year of high school when Erica saw the first signs that Kelsey's cancer was back.

Kelsey's face started to go red.

Erica asked her what was wrong, but Kelsey just held up her finger. Wait. I can't talk.

The girls' mother, a neurologist, identified the incident as a seizure and after taking her in for an MRI, the doctors said the words no mother wants to hear: It's cancer. Again.

Kelsey and her parents flew to Boston Children's Hospital for her second brain surgery, almost 10 years to the day from her first one. Her one request was that the doctors didn't shave all her thick, brown hair. They agreed.

Erica and Valerie waited nervously in their home in Winter Park, calling their father every five or 10 minutes to get an update. Erica struggled through her summer reading, "The Poisonwood Bible," while Valerie packed for a summer rowing camp. The 18-year-old twins were traveling in Europe after their high school graduation and anxiously awaiting updates from their parents across the Atlantic.

After about 10 hours, Kelsey came out of surgery. She had suffered a stroke, the doctors said. They knew going in it was a possibility. But she was alive, and they hoped the tumor was gone.

When she woke up, she couldn't move anything. Opposite the bald patch above her left temple, her face drooped. She couldn't smile, and she could barely talk.

Her right arm and leg were paralyzed. Her abdominal muscles had relaxed, making her stomach swell.

"I had always thought medicine was infallible," said her sister Valerie, now a premed student at UF, "until then."

But Kelsey wouldn't stay inactive for long, beginning physical therapy about a week after her surgery.

"I was going to run again," she vowed.

Initially put in a rehab program with other stroke patients, Kelsey, the 16-year-old world-class athlete, wasn't being challenged and didn't make much progress. So her dad called Dave Nitti, a physical therapist at the Florida Hospital, to give Kelsey private sessions at home.

"She was convinced that she was going to get better," Nitti said. "She was such an active kid; she always wanted to push herself. ... She amazes me all the time."

They started out small: Wiggle your toes. Now move them an inch. Now move your foot an inch.

She started walking again, first with a walker, then with a cane. Then she was running. Once, she and Nitti went surfing.

Still not satisfied, Kelsey joined the Beyond Therapy program at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Kelsey and her mom drove seven hours twice a week for therapy sessions.

Here, Kelsey was treated more like an athlete than a patient. She learned to lift weights and to row again, using a special glove over her right hand.

Kelsey hopes to one day be a world-class athlete again - this time in Paralympic swimming.

She swims more than a mile at a time and works out at the gym about three times a week.

No longer an actress, she now travels around Florida as a motivational speaker, sharing her message of hope and encouragement.

This semester, the UF junior is balancing 13 credits, an event-management internship at the O'Connell Center, weekly community-service events and monthly doctors appointments around the country. She has traveled on medical mission trips to Mexico with her family and studied abroad in Costa Rica, France and Greece. In her spare time, she's writing a book about her experiences.

Recurrent cancer can be very aggressive, according to the American Cancer Society, especially in young cancer survivors.

Kelsey must get regular MRIs and checkups to monitor her body. Though she is in remission, there's always a chance her tumor can come back in another five, 10, 20 years.

But just try to tell Kelsey she won't beat it.

"I'm living with cancer, but I'm not living in fear, " she said. "I realized at a very young age that life can be very short, but I fully believe that you can do whatever you want in life if you put your mind to it, no matter what's happened to you."

Welcome to the discussion.

1 comment:

  • meganoc posted at 2:25 am on Sun, Nov 13, 2011.

    meganoc Posts: 1

    Kelsey Tainsh is one of the most amazingly inspirational people I have ever met. I will always remember how she chimed into a conversation: well that's no big deal, I've survived cancer. I win.

     

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