A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with a young woman whom I’ve known for over ten years, the daughter of two people who I consider dear friends. A young woman who spent the last year of her life battling an incurable cancer, and knowing that her life would not go on much longer.
Although we had not seen each other much in recent years, my memories of her were still the bright-eyed young girl I used to sit with in the Teen Ranch kitchen, in between meals, talking about life, school, and sometimes helping her with her homework.
I remember a girl who was unsure of herself, but confident enough to push through and take life on, one day at a time. A girl who loved to laugh, who loved to have fun, and who loved her family deeper than most. I didn’t know much about her as an adult. Lives change, people go in different directions, and our paths rarely crossed over the last few years.
“God’s going to take me when he wants me. There’s nothing I can do, so why worry about it? God is in control, he’s got me in the palm of his hand, and he’s going to give me exactly how much time I need with my family here first.”
Tuesday afternoon, Priscilla Halfyard, a young woman admired by all who knew her, passed away at just 22 years old. The cause was Synovial Sarcoma, a rare cancer which mainly targets young adult males.
Priscilla, who passed away only days after marrying her fiancé Nick Sebok, had an infectious smile and was passionate about those she loved. She was also passionate about life; the diagnosis of Synovial Sarcoma did not deter her from living, but moved her to pursue accomplishing what she could in the little time that she had left remaining. Throughout her struggle, she never complained, and rarely was she seen without a big smile across her face.
“God has his hand in all of this, and I know that He is, and has been, taking care of me,” Priscilla said to me when we spoke two weeks ago. “It’s sad that this had to happen, but it has also brought so much healing to my family, and brought us closer together.”
In March of 2014, Priscilla was involved in a fatal accident, that saw her facing serious injuries and resulted in the loss of her younger brother, Spenser. Spenser’s death sent ripples of grief throughout the family and community – but that wasn’t the worst of it for Priscilla. The doctors ordered an x-ray to ensure she had no internal bleeding, and instead found a shadow on her lung. The shadow turned out to be cancerous, and despite an attempt to remove it, there was little hope of recovery.
“The accident was a curse, but it was also a blessing,” said Priscilla. “It was such a horrible situation, but if I hadn’t been there, we never would have found out about the cancer.”
While she didn’t say it during our conversation, it wasn’t hard to figure out with the type of cancer she had, that her life would have likely ended much sooner, probably much more painfully, and possibly suddenly.
She described the discovery as being in a moment of life that suddenly became blurred. Partly, she attributed to a term she jokingly coined as ‘chemo brain’, but the other part due to shock.
“When I found out about it, it wasn’t dying that made me afraid,” explained Priscilla. “It was the idea that I wouldn’t have the time with my family to do the things I wanted to do.”
Prior to her diagnosis, Priscilla, like most others, had never heard of Synovial Sarcoma. The main ‘target’ of this cancer is males under 21, with only one to three individuals diagnosed with this disease out of every million each year. Percentage-wise, about 8 percent of all sarcoma cancers are diagnosed as Synovial.
The disease is so rare that only three facilities in North America are capable of providing treatment for this cancer, including the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. The opportunity for recovery and elimination of the cancer is based entirely on the stage it is discovered by, and how quickly it spreads.
“Having this disease has made me want to see more awareness raised about it, and about other cancers,” explained Priscilla. “We have a huge focus on breast cancer in Canada – that’s not a bad thing, because one cancer is no less important than the next – but it means that a lot of other cancers get overshadowed.”
She added that there are Pink Ribbon campaigns everywhere, but because of that, most of the research funding goes toward Breast Cancer, rather than some of the rarer forms. Despite its low existence rate, according to several medical websites, Synovial Sarcoma is still the highest represented type of cancer in young adults – but information, studies and research on the cancer are still incredibly scarce. Synovial Sarcoma metastasizes rapidly, and is impossible to predict how it will affect a patient.
“You never know where it is going to attack next,” said Priscilla. “There is nothing that happens with it to allow them to track where the next tumour might grow.”
Despite knowing that her life now had a looming deadline, Priscilla never wanted to know when it would happen. What she did want was the opportunity to do some of the things she had always wanted to do. Along with Priscilla’s bucket list of items that she wanted to complete, she also presented an idea that mortified her family at first.
“I wanted to have a living funeral – a time to celebrate my life with my friends and family, instead of waiting until I was no longer there with them,” she said. “We called it the Healing and Humour Hour.”
The idea was that Priscilla wanted the time surrounding her death to be a celebration of her life, and she wanted the chance to celebrate with them. To see the joy in the eyes of her friends and her loved ones, and to leave behind memories of happiness instead of moments of sadness.
They held the event at Broadway Pentecostal Church on April 25, and what was supposed to be an hour, turned into three hours of laughter, love, and people sharing their stories of how Priscilla had impacted them throughout their lives.
Her father, Steve, shared that the event had a huge impact on him as well, saying that he had never known what an inspiration Priscilla was to people. And not just friends that she had grown up with either, but people his age, and older; people from every part of her life at school and Teen Ranch. People she had impacted even before her fight against cancer.
Another item was to see the launch of Spenser’s Heart Children’s Charity, in memory of her little brother. The Charity is designed to provide support to any child facing any type of trauma.
On Sunday evening, Priscilla married her fiancé, Nick; another thing she hoped to be able to do before passing. The wedding was originally planned for early June, but her symptoms progressed drastically and she was admitted to Bethell House in Inglewood on the weekend.
Priscilla was a fountain of inspiration, and to me, she was a powerhouse of faith. My last day with her, she beamed as she shared her thoughts, her ideas, her inspiration. She shared her trust in God, and how this battle simply pushed her closer and closer to Him. No matter how dire the circumstances throughout her battle, she fought on, and made it a goal to try to raise more awareness about the illness that took her future.
“God’s going to take me when he wants me,” Priscilla said. “There’s nothing I can do, so why worry about it? God is in control, he’s got me in the palm of his hand, and he’s going to give me exactly how much time I need with my family here first.”
Priscilla’s legacy will hopefully be one that sends ripples through the cancer community, and spikes the awareness that she had hoped to achieve in the last portion of her life. Her wisdom, her love, and her stunning smile will be what she is remembered for.