Friendship runs deeper than cancer for longtime friends

Going through cancer is never easy. Many of us have been touched by the disease in one way or another – directly or indirectly.

Soon-to-be Anoka High School senior Taylor Fournier, 17, has battled Stage 1a Hodgkins lymphoma with an incredible determination, positive attitude and support from family, friends and the greater community since being diagnosed in late April.

Taylor Fournier, middle, poses with best friends since kindergarten, Karlie Gehrig, left, and Rachel Challes, right, after winning a state title with their North Metro Soccer Association team.

Taylor Fournier, middle, poses with best friends since kindergarten, Karlie Gehrig, left, and Rachel Challes, right, after winning a state title with their North Metro Soccer Association team. Submitted Photo

Less than one week after the diagnosis, May 3, she had surgery to remove a tumor in her neck the size of a softball. Fournier completed her third and possibly final round of chemotherapy June 24.

A second, smaller tumor was found and recently completed chemotherapy seems to have worked to shrink the remaining tumor, which was in her upper chest.

Fournier’s mother, Charlotte (Chari) Fournier, wrote on Taylor’s CaringBridge page that her positive outlook “continues to be a blessing and keeps myself and her father on the same path. She is so amazing and strong, and her health and conditioning have helped throughout the entire process.”

Taylor Fournier, right, and Karlie Gehrig, left, inside the salon after Karlie shaved her head in support of Fournier, days after returning home from Colorado in May.

Taylor Fournier, right, and Karlie Gehrig, left, inside the salon after Karlie shaved her head in support of Fournier, days after returning home from Colorado in May. Submitted photo

Chari and Paul Fournier, her father, always shared their gratitude for such a strong network of friends and family which kept everyone going.

Taylor’s best friends Karlie Gehrig, who attends Andover High School, and Rachel Challes have been there every step of the way, too, not only to support their friend but to help raise awareness for cancer benefits through Andover and Anoka high schools and more.

All three grew up playing soccer in the North Metro Soccer Association and Gehrig and Fournier made a point of joining their North Metro Lightning U17 Premier team on a trip to a tournament in Denver, Colo., in late May.

“We were going to play,” Gehrig said before Fournier got the diagnosis soon after prom in late April.

Taylor Fournier, right, and Karlie Gehrig, left, pose in the back of the car during their trip to Colorado in May.

Taylor Fournier, right, and Karlie Gehrig, left, pose in the back of the car during their trip to Colorado in May. Submitted Photo

Migraines triggered a visit to the doctor for Taylor, which turned into more visits to specialists before an MRI revealed the mass.

“I had migraines off and on since my freshman year and it was a complete fluke that they found it,” Taylor said, since the mass was pushing on her airway.

New hairdo and Denver

One of the side effects from one of three rounds of chemotherapy was hair loss and before the friends made the journey to Denver, Fournier decided it was time to shave her head.

“I had been losing my hair 10 pieces at a time,” Fournier said. “When I started losing it in clumps in the shower, that’s the first time it hit me real hard that I had cancer.”

Taylor Fournier, right, and Karlie Gehrig, left, after Taylor got ready for prom, days before receiving the cancer diagnosis.

Taylor Fournier, right, and Karlie Gehrig, left, after Taylor got ready for prom, days before receiving the cancer diagnosis. Submitted Photo

With Gehrig and Challes by her side, Taylor decided to shave her head, after senior photos and before the Denver trip, which was followed by choosing hats for a cool flight to Colorado.

“Turns out I wasn’t ready but she was,” Chari Fournier wrote.

“It was really a stress-free time,” Gehrig said about the trip that included Fournier serving as team manager on the sideline for the Lightning in the college showcase tournament. The team recovered from a first-game loss to win the final two games and Gehrig scored in the finale.

Taylor expects the team to compete at USA CUP in Blaine in July and she’ll be there. “They’re like my sisters,” she said.

Beside the soccer games, Taylor and the group visited a few state parks and shopped in Denver, which was another humbling experience.

“Random people came up to me saying you look beautiful. It was a real touching moment,” Taylor said.

Once the group returned to Minnesota, Gehrig took the leap and shaved her head to show her best friend how much she cared.

“My hair has grown back really fast and I’m shaving it again [June 20],” Gehrig said about showing support for her friend.

“It was really hard to take at first that your best friend has cancer at 17 and now I forget it all the time,” Gehrig said.

She and Challes have been to many of Fournier’s hospital visits in addition to regular visits, while she was recovering from surgery.

“True friendship shows itself in many different ways,” Chari Fournier wrote.

Friends Katrina Funder, Ashley Thelen and Taylor Dirkes decorated Taylor’s room before they returned home from Denver and her Lightning teammates wearing “Play for Tay” shirts in Denver.

“To [Taylor’s brother Luke’s] friends hanging out with her and making her laugh until she literally cries and so many more I couldn’t begin to even name here,” Chari Fournier wrote.

Taylor recently took part in the Anoka Area Relay For Life for the first time, completing the ceremonial first lap with 20 other cancer survivors at the Anoka County Fairgrounds June 21. The event raised nearly $60,000 through pledges, silent auction items, food sales and other fundraisers.

Taylor was granted a wish through the Make-A-Wish program and was joking with a social worker about actually getting a wish, but she qualified so now to make that big-time wish.

“You don’t have to be terminal now so I was thinking of three things to do before I turn 18 on [Feb. 14],” she said.

Her top wish is a trip to the World Cup in Brazil next summer, but if that doesn’t work she’s sure another trip to somewhere amazing or a car are in the works. “I want my family to be involved because they’re the reason I’ve been so strong,” Fournier said.

During the final weeks of school, Andover and Anoka students sold between 500-600 black t-shirts with violet writing, Taylor’s favorite color and the color of Lymphoma awareness, “Taylor Strong” on the front and lyrics from the late Stillwater teen Zach Sobiech’s song, ‘Clouds’ on the back.

The group presented the Dylan Witschen Foundation with a $2,500 donation with more proceeds to come in.

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