Taylor McClain’s day is filled with fear. It’s not his own – it’s from the patients he serves, people undergoing scans to seek out cancer cells.
The moments they are with McClain happen during the strange and scary space between fearing they might have cancer – and finding out. But McClain offers his patients something more than a diagnostic scan. He offers them hope.
Compassionate Cancer Care
McClain is a lead technologist in nuclear medicine and PET scanning at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center – skilled at what he does, compassionate to an astonishing degree. But if his other title were emblazoned on his employee badge, it would read: Taylor McClain, cancer survivor.
It’s in his shadow role of survivor that McClain performs some of his best work. If patients seem open to it, he’ll tell them: I know what you’re going through. I was diagnosed with cancer at 22.
As a junior at Appalachian State University, McClain started noticing his 2-mile morning runs were getting harder. Too much college pizza and beer, he figured. Still, it was a little mysterious – after all, he’d run a half-marathon the year before.
Finally, after a run that left him gasping for breath, the environmental science major decided it was time to visit a health clinic. That started a chain of events that led to a day so transformative that even now, he remembers the exact time and date: 9 a.m., Jan. 16, 2014.
“You have a softball-sized mass in your chest,” the doctor told him. “It’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
Making cancer count
“I remember calling my mom after getting diagnosed,” McClain said. “We were both in shock.” After a second opinion confirmed the diagnosis, McClain left school and moved home to start treatments, supported by his family and then-girlfriend (now wife), Summer. Even in his own depths of illness, though, McClain’s heart went out to others who were suffering. In the chemotherapy infusion rooms, he would see elderly patients without anyone sitting with them, and people who had no one to go home to for support.
“For me, I tried diligently to see this as a temporary stage – a hurdle to jump before moving on with life,” McClain said. “Seeing others go through these things not only on their own but as part of a possibly permanent routine just to survive was incredibly moving and eye-opening.”
The chemo knocked out McClain’s cancer, which affects the immune system, and he returned to school. He was so close to graduating that he finished his degree in environmental science, but he knew his future would be far different than he’d once imagined.
“I came back to school a totally different person. I just kept being reflective about it, saying ‘What can I do with this experience?’” he said. The thought that his cancer was for a purpose nagged at McClain, and he enrolled at Forsyth Technical Community College, where he earned a degree in nuclear medicine – a specialized area of radiology that helps many patients, including those with cancer. When patients seem open, McClain shares his story and the hope he knows they need. When patients hear McClain has beaten cancer, their eyes light up, he said.
“I’m kind of obsessed with the idea that I can help someone else know they can get through this,” he said. “And there’s no other job I could do or path for me that does this … It feels like why you’re here.”
Recently, a patient who had seen McClain for a scan was back in the office, and she sought him out. “I’ve thought of you since my last appointment and I’ve been able to get through this because of you,” she told him.
When he hears words like that, McClain said, he feels like he’s received a gift. “There’s something really incredible about giving someone else something you know you once needed in their position. That outweighs any of the exhaustion,” he said. “I think I’m meant for that. I want to (offer) light that draws someone else near.”