The high school and college years should be a time of fun, enjoyment and personal growth. For Rylie York, these formative years did not play out at all as she expected. They did, however, put her on a path to self-discovery, which led to a better understanding of her life’s purpose and a fulfilling career helping others.
During her senior year of high school, the outgoing swimmer, water polo player, choir president and youth ministry leader noticed a swollen lymph node on the right side of her neck. A biopsy revealed that Rylie had stage 4B Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a relatively aggressive, but highly treatable, cancer that affects the lymphatic system — a part of the body’s germ-fighting immune system.
“I had to leave school during what was supposed to be the most joyous and celebratory year of high school,” Rylie said. “It was hard finishing my schoolwork at home, but I knew it was necessary.”
Receiving the very best care and treatment
Suddenly sidelined from her active lifestyle, Rylie started treatment under the care of longtime cancer specialist, Dr. ZoAnn Dreyer and her team at Texas Children’s Cancer and Hematology Center. Dr. Dreyer is the Sidney L. and Donald F. Faust Professor in Pediatric Cancer Survivorship at Texas Children’s Hospital and Clinical Director of the Long-Term Survivor Program.
Knowing she was in the best of hands, Rylie received chemotherapy and radiation to treat the 13 cm tumor on top of her lungs. Her treatment went well; however, routine scans showed new masses affecting the opposite side of her neck and her lung.
At this point, Riley had graduated from high school and was about to begin her freshman year at Baylor University. Disappointed but undeterred by these new tumors, she moved into her dorm, attended classes four days per week and spent Fridays at Texas Children’s receiving treatment.
As Rylie began her second semester of college, a routine checkup showed that active disease remained in her chest. She learned she would need an autologous bone marrow transplant, a procedure in which her own healthy stem cells would be used to replace cells damaged by chemotherapy and radiation. Rylie underwent several intense days of cleansing to rid her body of damaged cells. She received her healthy bone marrow transplant in August of 2019 and within a few weeks, she was discharged from the hospital.
“Despite having to take time away from school, drive to Houston from Waco and undergo weekly treatments that often made her feel sick, Rylie excelled in her classes and always had a smile on her face,” said Dr. Dreyer. “Her strength and resiliency throughout her treatment were truly remarkable, and those qualities have continued to shine through her journey as a cancer survivor and, now, her career.”
Seeing beyond her diagnosis
Throughout her cancer journey, Rylie says it became abundantly clear to her that God’s plan for her life was to spend her days supporting children and families suffering situations like hers. Two years after her transplant, during her junior and senior years of college, Rylie began an internship at His Grace Foundation (HGF), a nonprofit organization that provides physical, emotional and financial support to patients and families receiving care at Texas Children’s Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. Each year, HGF serves approximately 150 families whose children suffer from life-threatening diseases, including leukemia, neuroblastoma, sickle cell anemia, rare blood diseases, brain tumors and other types of cancer.
“Little did I know that those few months as an intern would begin a new life chapter for me,” said Rylie, now a college graduate and HGF’s program director. “I started working full-time for HGF in May 2022, and I’ve deeply cherished every moment of it. Serving bone marrow transplant patients and their families is my calling. I could have allowed my circumstances to turn me away from ever considering this kind of work, but I feel great joy and appreciation for my life’s journey because it led to where I am now — giving back to the very thing and place that could have stolen my joy and appreciation for life.”
When Rylie welcomes a patient to the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit, she says she knows how they are feeling. She also knows that patients are now part of a family they never wanted to join, and she advises patients to embrace their feelings of pain and anger. But she also encourages them to think about how cancer may help show them their path in life.
While undergoing treatment, Rylie wrote a letter to patients, and she feels her words are still applicable. “You may never know the reason you have become close friends with this disease,” she wrote. “I had cancer because I was called to be loud. I had cancer because of the girls who will come after me. I had cancer to gain a new perspective. I had cancer so I could write this letter to you. For me, that is more than enough reason to have battled this disease. I am in this fight with you.”
Rylie continues annual appointments with Dr. Dreyer and the team at the Long-Term Survivor Program, which she will continue for the rest of her life.
“I am healthy and active,” she concluded. “And I’m motived and passionate about my life after cancer.”