A Second Chance At...Health
When doctors gave Bailey O’Brien a terminal cancer prognosis, high school athlete and her family refused to accept her death sentence.
Photos by Stefan Radtke
Seven months: That’s how long Bailey O’Brien’s oncologist at NYU Hospital said she had to live. The 20-year-old rising college senior had been diagnosed with melanoma in 2007. She thought she’d beaten it. But two years later, the cancer returned—with a vengeance: seven tumors in all, some inoperable.
“It was a death sentence,” Bailey says bluntly. But she and her parents, Rebecca and James, would not give up. They would fight, using all weapons at their disposal, even if the FDA or her own doctors didn’t approve.
Bailey’s eight-year “cancer journey,” as she calls it, began at 17. Freckled and fair, with long brown hair and expressive hazel eyes, she was a varsity-gymnast-turned-springboard-diver at Putnam Valley High School, good enough to earn a partial scholarship to Boston University. During her first semester at BU, she noticed a weird spot on her right temple. “It was a dark freckle that had a pinkish bump under it,” she recalls. “I thought it was a pimple, but it wouldn’t go away.”
A biopsy taken after Thanksgiving came back “highly suspicious” for melanoma. At NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, surgeons removed 45 lymph nodes from Bailey’s neck, part of her salivary glands, and a swath of facial skin near her temple. She received a month of Interferon treatments and went back to school, back to diving. As a junior, she had a personal-best season, making the podium in both 1- and 3-meter springboard at the 2010 America East Championship. She was embarking on her senior year, “feeling as strong as I’ve ever been,” she says, when a routine follow-up scan showed that the cancer had returned in her jaw. The first surgery didn’t get the tumor, and a mass was found behind her ear and biopsied. The doctors got the tumor and the mass in a second surgery, along with a wide margin of skin and tissue, as well as some bone from her skull. The next day, Bailey looked in the mirror and saw that the bottom half of her right ear was gone. “It wrecked me,” she says.
After a month of radiation and emotional struggle, Bailey traveled with the diving team on a training trip to Hawaii before returning to school. Just two months after her second surgery, she felt a bump under her chin while putting on sunscreen. A CT scan revealed seven tumors in her spine, neck, and one lung. Her mom and sister drove up to her dorm to break the news. “I didn’t expect it at all," Bailey says. "I broke down. I felt like I was trapped, thinking about if I might be able to survive. Everything ended with me dead.”
Bailey started on a chemo drug called Temodar. Meanwhile, with the help of a friend well versed in holistic medicine, Bailey’s mom had studied up on alternative treatments. One of them was Coley’s Vaccine, also called Coley’s Toxins. Invented in the late 19th century by cancer surgeon William B. Coley, the fluid contains bacterial toxins that literally infect the body and cause a fever, stimulating the immune system to attack malignant tumors. After 1965, when the American Cancer Society classified the it as an “unproven method,” Coley’s Vaccine became next to impossible to get in the US.
But there was a place, in Mexico: The Centro Hospitalario Internacional del Pacifico S.A., or CHIPSA, a cancer-research hospital in Tijuana that specializes in alternative medicine, including Coley’s Vaccine. According to CHIPSA, 60 percent of end-stage melanoma patients who followed the hospital’s treatment plan live at least five years. This was Bailey’s second chance.
In February of 2011, in what she calls “the biggest leap of faith of my life,” Bailey and her mother traveled to Tijuana. For three weeks at CHIPSA, they shared a tiny room, while Bailey did the protocol. She followed the Gerson Therapy, a low-sodium organic diet said to promote healing by boosting the immune system and correcting any nutrient deficiencies. She drank enough fruit and vegetable juices to drown an elephant: eight ounces every hour. She also received frequent vitamin C drips; Laetrile, a controversial cancer treatment derived from apricot pits; three coffee enemas a day; and regular doses of Coley’s Vaccine. She was given an autologous vaccine made from her own white blood cells and immune-boosting antigens.
“It was hard work,” she says, but her training as a diver served her well: “In sports, you’re always working towards something. I was working toward getting better. I had an amazing support group—family and teammates who were always there for me.”
By the time Bailey left Mexico, the lump under her chin was gone. She continued the CHIPSA protocol for three weeks, until her next scan. At the follow-up appointment at Sloan Kettering, she and Rebecca were on pins and needles for the results. After what seemed like an interminable wait, the doctor came in and, looking at the floor, told Bailey she “no longer needed his services. According to the scans, it looked like all the tumors were gone.”
Cancer-free five years after her terminal diagnosis, former high school athlete Bailey O‘Brien is active in her church, volunteers her time at local elementary schools, and is planning to embark on a career as a certified health coach.
The next day was Bailey’s 21st birthday. She celebrated with a sip of sangria at an organic restaurant in Manhattan with her family.
Bailey no longer sees her oncologist or gets scans, though she still takes Coley’s Vaccine about once a month at home. She’s passed the three-year threshold for recurrence; after five years, she’ll be considered cured. It will be five years in March.
Today, Bailey lives with her parents in Putnam Valley but spends a lot of time in Peekskill, going to church and kickboxing class, or hanging out at The Peekskill Coffee House. Fiercely strict about her diet, she avoids anything that isn’t organic and watches her intake of salt and sugar. She doesn’t even drink or eat from plastic, so determined is she to ward off the toxic influences that she feels made her sick in the first place. As she puts it, “For me, living dangerously is ordering something off a menu without asking what’s in it.”
If Bailey knows one thing for sure, it’s that she’s come out of this experience a different person, more alive in every sense of the word. Once shy and tongue-tied around strangers, she now gives motivational speeches to corporations and schools. Once introverted, she enjoys hanging out with people. Where once she joked about going to heaven or hell, now she has an abiding faith in God that makes her “feel fully alive.” She felt a sort of survivor’s euphoria at first, but after that wore off, she was left with, Why me?
“I felt some survivor’s remorse when I healed,” she concedes. “A friend’s mom passed away from lung cancer when I was in Mexico. I began to ask myself: Why did I get a second chance and others didn’t? That’s when my spiritual yearning started. I wanted to know the purpose of my life. I wanted to know if God was real, because I’d prayed for a miracle. Some people call it a miracle; some people call it science. I think God gave me the resources to be healed.”
Bailey is making the most of her second chance. She is writing a memoir and plans to launch a new career as a certified health coach next spring. She’s also very active in Peekskill’s First Baptist Church and volunteers for The Good News Club, a church-sponsored after-school program at local elementary schools. And every chance she gets, she babysits her two nephews, who were a big inspiration in her comeback: “They bring me so much joy. I didn’t have a lot of joy in my life before I had cancer. Life was not really exciting to me. I looked at people who were happy, and I thought they were weird. What’s there to be happy about? But now I’m happy most days. My message as a speaker is about being grateful for life. Instead of thinking life is a burden, be grateful for the day, because so many people don’t get that chance.”