"One of the most awkward conversations is when I tell people I have cancer," says Tiarnee Yates.
Tiarnee calls it "the three reactions": 1. He or she has an awkward, silent stare. 2. He or she asks billions of questions. And 3. He or she says, "You don't look like you have cancer."
For Tiarnee, age 22, her ongoing struggle with cancer began during a basketball tournament in March of 2008. She was dominating—until the fifth game of the day when the then-13-year-old's heart became a clenched fist and breathing became difficult.
Her team, the Baltimore Storm, lost that game and many people, including Tiarnee's father, were upset about the loss and said she blew the game due to "laziness." A few days later before practice, Tiarnee began wheezing heavily while walking up a flight of stairs. She didn't know what was wrong and her wheezing kept getting worse.
Her mother carried her into GBMC's emergency room but those "laziness" accusations stayed with her, so Tiarnee said, "Ma, we need to hurry up and get this over with, I gotta get to practice."
X-rays followed and Tiarnee was quickly transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital: Her "laziness" turned out to be a broken piece of her kidney, cemented between her heart and lungs. She convinced herself nothing severe was going on; her biggest concerns were missing school and prepping for a championship game. That night, Tiarnee went to sleep worried but determined, only to wake up to 15 or so friends and family members looming, almost smothering her with concern.
"I must be dying," she recalls thinking as she spotted her grandmother's face and realized she'd made the trip from Virginia to Baltimore to see her granddaughter.
Cat scans, more X-rays, nurses, needles, blood, and thoughts of death swarmed Tiarnee for a month and a half as she stayed at the hospital. At one point, Tiarnee flatlined. Friends and family scattered as a team of doctors and nurses assembled, rushed her to another room, where she was examined with another scan.
Tiarnee was still focused on practice and when a doctor entered the room to tell her some news she assumed meant all was well.
"I can go back to school?" she asked preemptively. "I'm pretty sure they told you that I've been missing practice."
"You're gonna be out a little bit longer than expected. You have cancer," the doctor told her.
Tiarnee was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a rare kidney cancer.
"Y'all are bullshittin', I have basketball to finish," Tiarnee said.
"You might not be able to play basketball for a while," the doctor told her.
About three weeks after that game she lost to laziness, Tiarnee received her first surgery, which removed the blockage between her heart and lung and removed her right kidney. Her doctors predicted Tiarnee would be dead very soon, maybe even shortly after her surgery.
While she recovered, basketball stayed on her mind. One night she woke up in the hospital to her father watching a basketball game, and promptly yelled "What's the score?"
For the next two months, she stayed in the hospital with doctors running in and out of her room to check in on her. She says she felt as if she was in "a freak show."
But Tiarnee recovered quickly and was released from the hospital. She went back to school in May and graduated from Cardinal Shehan Middle School that June. She attended Polytechnic High School and was frequently bullied for the face mask that she wore along with her uniform—due to her fragile immune system.
"I don't ever want anybody to feel pity for me," she says.
Tiarnee keeps a sense of humor about it all—renal cell carcinoma is typically found in men in the age range of 60 and up, and for a young woman to get this type of cancer is rare, so she sarcastically calls herself "The Lucky One." She is frank about her experience with chemotherapy.
"I was ignorant [of chemotherapy]; I heard so much bad stuff about chemo: It kills people. You go bald," she says. "I wasn't worried about dying. I was worried about losing my hair. I thought to myself 'Oh my god, my edges are gonna be gone.'"
Tiarnee went through chemotherapy every Thursday all through high school. She lost weight, hair, and even friends. She bitterly recalls people attempting to do things for her such as take her out on dates or to the prom because they felt sorry for her.
After graduating high school in 2012, Tiarnee attended Saint Peters University in Jersey City and received her bachelors degree in science and health with a concentration in physical therapy in May 2016.
At times, however, anxiety and depression and the trauma of recovery haunt her. She missed what added up to over two years of high school and college during recovery due to numerous appointments and six surgeries. A September 2015 surgery to remove cancer from her liver was her "worst surgery ever." It was so spiritually, mentally, and physically damaging that she considered suicide by overdosing on prescription pills. During her recovery of this surgery, she says her grandmother told her, "It's not your turn yet."
Despite the many times Tiarnee has been plugged up to machines, unable to walk, breathe, or talk, plagued by suicidal thoughts, she has persevered. It's the same spirit that had her fighting her mom on the way to the hospital and the one that told her doctor they were "bullshittin'" and she had a game to play.
I consider Tiarnee a superhero and whenever I start bitching and moaning, I always think about Tiarnee and what she's faced and gulp down my cries. She now works as a physical therapist technician at Johns Hopkins Hospital—the same hospital where she was got that life-changing news at 13.
Tiarnee has never been in complete remission. The longest she has ever been cancer-free is 10 months. A recent CAT scan on Dec. 7 of last year—her 22nd birthday—showed traces of cancer. But remission is not an impossibility.
Although Tiarnee can no longer run basketball plays such as "Trap Girl," drain three pointers, celebrate victories, and embrace the losses, she has found other ways to engage with world. Along with her hospital work, she raises money for research to help other cancer patients and intends to start her own program that encourages and assists men and women who suffer from cancer to "stay beautiful" despite the hardships they are facing. She's already looking for donations of new clothes, shoes, and wigs for the participants in the program.
Her head may be bloody, but it's unbowed.
When I finally asked Tiarnee if she fears death, she erupted with a "Hell no!" Then she goes on.
"But I do look at the world differently because I was supposed to die at 13," she says. "I'm not going anywhere no time soon. I will never say 'cancer beat me.' I can't leave even if I wanted to because if I quit, it's gonna affect people in a negative way and make others want to quit."