Teen tackles brain cancer on the open road

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 10, 2010



LAPLACE – At 4:30 a.m. on Monday, when most people are either still in bed or just waking up to prepare for the day, LaPlace teen Taylor Atkinson will be pedaling on a 40-mile trek from his home to his school in New Orleans — all in the name of cancer research.

Atkinson’s ride is an effort to raise money for the American Brain Tumor Association and honor the memory of his father, Mark Atkinson, and his friend, Zachary Goza, who were both stricken with cancerous tumors.

Atkinson, 18, said he has been gathering sponsors for his ride through a Web site he set up on March 26. In the more than two weeks that the site has been up, Atkinson has raised $1,400 as of Friday morning.

“I wasn’t ever sure how far I was going to get with this,” Atkinson said. “I’m extremely happy with the progress I have made so far.”

Atkinson said his father’s passion for biking was the driving force behind his push to ride on Monday. He said a tour through trails in Ohio with his family last summer helped germinate the idea further.

“It’s called the Great Ohio Bike Adventure,” Atkinson said. “My mother and father had taken the same trip years before I was born. Before that trip, biking was something I did only occasionally. Now I make an effort to ride every day.”

Atkinson said his interest in riding was rekindled while he was a wrestler at Brother Martin. A freak back injury took him off the mat and put him on a stationary bike. When it was determined he was no longer able to wrestle, Atkinson kicked his biking regimen into high gear.

“I try to ride about four days a week and anywhere from 10 to 30 miles a day,” Atkinson said. “I find that riding clears my head and allows me to concentrate and focus on other things. It has also helped me to cope with losing my dad and Zachary.”

Atkinson said he learned the harsh reality of cancer at a very young age. He said he was 7 when Goza passed away and only 11 when he lost his father. With vivid clarity, Atkinson recalled the months of treatment and surgeries that ultimately culminated in his father’s passing.

“When I first learned that my dad had cancer, I had a childlike faith that everything would be OK,” Atkinson said.

“Like every boy my age, I thought my father was invincible, but as time passed he would seem to get better only to get worse. The symptoms never stopped him. He still went to work, led his Bible study group and was a father.”

Atkinson said his father’s unwavering perseverance fueled his faith in his recovery. He said even after the last surgery, when his father could barely walk and no longer communicate, Atkinson said his father’s sharp mind and intense faith stayed.

“A few months before he died, my mother called my brother and I into the living room where she and my father were sitting,” Atkinson said. “Tearfully, she broke the news that dad was not going to make it. Even though speaking was outside of his ability, I could see his thoughts in his eyes. He didn’t want to leave his family behind.”

Atkinson called his dad his biggest role model. He said he often encouraged him to write and speak to express his feelings. After his father passed on, Atkinson said he would spend large chunks of time writing about his thoughts and feelings.

“The emotions that his sickness brought on caused me to create some of the best writings of my life,” Atkinson said. “Even after the treatments and the sickness took away his ability to talk regularly, he was able to speak to me on a whole new level.”

Although he will be riding alone through most of the trek, Atkinson said he would be accompanied by his cousin, who will coordinate escorts and remain in constant communication. He said he expects the ride to take about two hours.

“There was a definite nervousness from my mom when I first brought up the idea,” Atkinson said. “But she and the rest of my family have stood behind me as long as the ride remained feasible.”

Atkinson, who is a senior at Brother Martin, said he is considering his life after high school. He has been accepted to LSU, Tulane, Centenary and Vanderbilt and is in the process of narrowing his choice. He said he is considering a future career in psychology.

“People have always told me that I’m a good listener, and I like to help people through problems,” he said. “Two traits of a good psychologist.”

If you would like to donate to Atkinson’s cause, visit www.firstgiving.com/tayloratkinson. He said sponsors are free to contribute as long as the site is accepting.