Keeler: How Highlands Ranch basketball’s Taylor Ray crafted 2021’s best comeback story

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Like any good love story, this one’s got a scar. Actually, it has two. The big one resembles a shark bite, a rainbow mess of purple and pink that spans from hip to hip and crests, like a gentle wave, above the navel.

The second scar is on Taylor Ray’s neck. That’s the spot where doctors removed a vein to re-create the portal vein in her liver. The liver they had to remove from her body so try to burn the cancer off of it, then stick it back in again.

“An act of God,” Taylor called it.

God. Surgeons. Community. Friends. Coaches. Family. Many hands, pulling a rope that stretched from Highlands Ranch to New York City. The mother of all comebacks.

“It’s been pretty much Hell,” Tim Ray explained before his daughter Taylor, a junior forward with the Highlands Ranch girls basketball team, and her teammates hosted Ponderosa in the Falcons’ home finale this past Wednesday night. “You just never thought anything like this would ever happen to you.”

While 2020 was chucking curveballs at the rest of us, it tossed the Ray family a knuckler. Then it started throwing, mercilessly, at their heads.

***

She knew. Kids always know. The doctors gently herded her parents into another room and shut the door. It’s never good when they shut the door. Ever.

A few minutes later, they came back and told her, too. Cancer.

“I was mainly worried about basketball first,” Taylor recalled. “My parents were like, ‘Basketball isn’t everything.’

“But I’m like, ‘It is to me.’”

This past August, after a 3-on-3 tournament in searing heat left 17-year-old Taylor with a feeling “like something popped out of my stomach every time I took a breath,” doctors confirmed the worst. She’d contracted fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, fibro for short, a rare liver cancer.

“She was days away from them not being able to dissect the tumor,” Tim recalled. “And then the life expectancy would be 12 to 36 months.”

Tim and his wife, Ronnie, dropped everything, including work, to find a solution. A solution and a surgeon.

Research and recommendations brought them to Dr. Paul Kent, an oncologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, a former cross country state champion at Boulder High School and a specialist on fibro treatments. And, eventually, to the services of Dr. Tomoaki Kato — “the Michael Jordan of surgery,” Tim said — at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in the Big Apple.

The original plan was for Taylor and her folks to remain in New York for about five weeks as she recovered from her September procedure. But 2020 started throwing beanballs again, and Kato discovered the cancer had spread more aggressively than anticipated.

Complications mounted. Five weeks became nine. Then 12. The family wound up returning to Colorado about a week before Christmas.

“My parents are definitely the reason why I’m still alive,” Taylor said. “When I’m sad because I’m not playing or sad because I can’t have sugar because of my high glucose, they talk me down. They’re definitely my rock.”

Because of the coronavirus, only one parent was allowed by Taylor’s hospital bed at a time. A friend of a friend offered them a condo near Rockefeller Center to use as a base camp, where they stayed long enough to see the famous Christmas tree go up, watching its lights glisten from a window across the street.

“It was the little things,” Taylor recalled. “My mom would paint my nails. My dad would watch TV and watch games with me. They’d open the wrappers on food before they gave the food to me. It made a difference.”

If Tim and Ronnie were her rock, basketball was her wings. A rangy, 6-foot defender — think Jerami Grant, but smaller — with the footwork and reach to smother attackers at multiple positions, Taylor was coming off a sophomore season at Highlands Ranch that saw her average 13.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 2.5 steals per contest. She’d already landed scholarship offers from CSU, Montana and DU, her father’s alma mater.

But after surgery wiped out her fall, subsequent treatments over the winter — chemotherapy, IVs, pills — have knocked off 20 pounds. The directive from Dr. Kent in Chicago and Dr. Brian Greffe of Children’s Hospital in Aurora involved bursts of medication to try and boost the body’s immune system so that it can fight the cancer, or at least limit the spread, on its own.

Meanwhile, the side effects have been a royal pain in the backside. It’s been a struggle for the teen to hold down food. And it’s played havoc with Taylor’s blood sugar, nixing personal favorites such as orange juice and sports drinks and requiring regular insulin injections. While last year’s surgery was deemed a success, fibro has this nasty habit of coming back.

“Now it’s kind of a long-haul game, like, ‘Let’s get through this day-by-day,’” Tim said. “It’s like we’re in the dark, punching at something that we can’t see.”

Some blows land. Other days, you’re just flailing at the air. By the time Taylor had enough pep to run again, in mid-January, her knee started swelling up because of a bruised meniscus. For much of February, the doctors would only allow shooting and dribbling by herself.

“My mind,” Taylor said, “was just a little further ahead than my body was.”

***

By Wednesday, her mind was on Senior Night, a Highlands Ranch celebration that doubled as Parents Appreciation Night. COVID protocols meant Falcons players were allowed a handful of guests each; cardboard cutouts filled out most of the rest of the bleachers.

A few minutes ahead of the opening tip, Taylor walked over to her father and handed him an envelope with one hand and an orange rose with the other.

The knee had improved to the point where she’d been cleared to practice fully, in small increments, the Friday before. The warmup felt OK.

“She might try to go tonight,” Tim said, more hopeful than sure.

The Falcons raced out to a 25-9 lead. Then 42-22. With Highlands Ranch up 75-42, the benches emptied.

The crowd, what crowd there was, got a little restless.

“Put her in!” somebody barked.

“Yeah, put Taylor in!” shouted another.

With 1:24 left, coach Caryn Jarocki did.

As Ray checked in for her season debut, the gathering of maybe 50 let out the loudest cheers of the night.

Teammates whooped with delight. Taylor tried to put on her game face while wiping away tears of absolute joy.

“I was really nervous and shaky,” Ray said later of her 84-second cameo, which featured one turnover and a lot of understandable rust. “It was just emotional.

“Next game, I’ll do better.”

Basketball isn’t everything.

But, man, did that feel good.

“I am so proud,” a mother said to Tim as he left the gym.

“Awesome to see, man,” a dad offered. “Awesome to see.”

In the hallway outside, Ronnie tried her darnedest to keep up that game face, too.

“Basketball is her world,” Mom said softly. Proudly. “That’s all she wants. So that’s all we want for her.”

Never stop swinging.

Even if you can’t see.

“Oh, she’ll probably give herself an ‘F,’” Ronnie laughed. “She’ll definitely come out and say, ‘Mom, did you see that air ball that I shot? Mom, did you see I turned it over?’ She’ll just look at everything she did wrong.”

Ronnie’s watched somewhere between 300 and 400 games. Club events. Travel teams. Prep tournaments. Ten years of moments.

“This one’s the highest,” Mom said. “For sure.”

During a break in the action, Tim had opened the envelope his daughter had left him and unfolded the note inside. At the top was a drawing of a giant heart.

Beneath it, Taylor wrote:

The amount of love I have for you guys is inexpressible. You guys are the reason I am here today and the reason I get to keep doing what I love!

— love, Tiki

They’ve got miles to go yet. Miles. But once you’ve already been to Hell and back, every step feels a little lighter.

Tim slipped the note into the envelope and looked across the gym at Taylor, clapping away on a socially distant bench. Punching at the darkness.


What is fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma?

Fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma, or “fibro” for short, is a rare form of liver cancer. It occurs most frequently among adolescents and young adults. Highlands Ranch forward Taylor Ray was diagnosed with fibro last August and returned to the basketball court this past week.

The exact underlying cause of the cancer is unknown. Patients rarely show symptoms until the tumor has developed significantly. Major indicators include abdominal pain, severe weight loss and overall fatigue.

Treatment for fibro involves a surgical resection, or removal, of the tumor and the removal of nearby lymph nodes to prevent the cancer from spreading. Some cases are treated by transplanting the entire liver, but only if the tumor can’t be removed or there is further damage to the liver, such as cirrhosis.

The cancer has been known to recur, usually requiring another surgery to remove new tumors that emerge.

The median age for diagnosis is 25 years. Fibro reportedly accounts for only 1% of the U.S. cases of primary liver cancer.

Source: National Organization for Rare Disorders, RareDiseases.org



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