Fight with cancer inspires former Williams athlete to study medicine
Editor's Note: Dick Quinn is the sports information director at Williams College. A version of the article, which appears in The Eagle to highlight National Cancer Survivors Day today, was originally published on the Williams College sports website.
A Williamstown native and the grandson and great-grandson of standout Eph athletes, Trevor Bayliss enrolled at Williams College in 1994 to run cross country, play hockey and run track, just as he had done at Andover Academy.
Bayliss' great-grandfather, Oswald Tower, a Williams Class of 1907 alum, is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. His grandfather, Oz Tower, Class of 1941, was a standout in football, wrestling and lacrosse.
Bayliss chose Williams over rival Amherst because he wanted to follow in his family's footsteps.
"I don't think my grandfather would've allowed me to go to Amherst," Bayliss said with a chuckle.
At the time Bayliss entered Williams, he had no intention of becoming an oncologist/hematologist. But it was a battle with a rare form of cancer and his remarkable comeback as an athlete that inspired Bayliss to fight for his life and pursue a career in medicine treating patients with cancer.
This is Bayliss' story.
During his first year on campus, Bayliss was always winded during workouts and physically drained after them. His Williams times in cross-country were not comparable to his high school times when he won the New England prep school cross-country individual title as a junior and had a little less success his senior year.
"Looking back, that first fall at Williams is probably when I started to get sick," Bayliss said.
Despite his fatigue in that first year, Bayliss tried out for the ice hockey team. He played in a pre-season scrimmage at Dartmouth College, but was unable to shake the feeling of being tired all of the time.
Bayliss quit hockey to "just take a break, because maybe college sports was just not for me," he recalled.
Bayliss rested through the competitive winter season and then showed up for outdoor track and field practice in the spring. In early April, he started to notice a bulge in his abdomen. A coach and some teammates became aware of the unusual shape of his stomach during a workout session in the swimming pool. Bayliss kept telling himself it was probably nothing serious because there was no pain.
That summer, Bayliss worked for the Facilities Department at Williams. Each day when he got home, he was just completely drained of all energy. The thought of running after work to prepare for cross-country was just that, a thought. He could not train. For the first time, Bayliss began to consider that he might be sick.
In August 1995, Bayliss paid a visit to his doctor, Eric Pillemer, at Southern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.
The protrusion was an enlarged spleen and had to be removed. Whereas a normal adult spleen weighs two pounds, Bayliss' weighed 10. During the surgery, it was discovered that Bayliss had large granular T-cell leukemia, a rare and indolent form of cancer usually found in people much older.
Given the unique nature of Bayliss' cancer -- a slow developing form that was not usually found in someone so young, Pillemer initially recommended only "watchful waiting."
Unable to compete in sports his sophomore year, Bayliss decided to try various other approaches to get himself back to good health, including tai chi, visualization, meditation and yoga.
When his junior year arrived, Bayliss was feeling markedly better and decided to try to make an athletic comeback.
Bayliss lifted weights and trained for ice hockey, but wasn't getting stronger. Bayliss just could not seem to get back in shape. He was regularly having to catch his breath after climbing a single flight of stairs.
When his friends noticed that his lips and fingers were blue that winter, Bayliss knew it was time to go see his doctor again. The cancer, they discovered, had invaded his lungs and his liver.
Pillemer told Bayliss they needed to be more aggressive and begin a chemotherapy program to prepare him to go to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle for a possible bone marrow transplant.
In March 1997, Bayliss and his mom, Ellen, packed up and traveled to Seattle, where they rented an apartment near Hutchinson so he could begin an even more intense chemotherapy regimen.
But the cancer didn't respond to the chemotherapy and Bayliss required oxygen at all times. Soon, he likely would no longer be a candidate for a bone marrow transplant. Further complications caused the staff at Hutchinson to worry that higher doses of chemotherapy would probably kill Bayliss. It was beginning to look like he could not survive a bone marrow transplant.
Just shy of a month after arriving in Seattle, Bayliss was sitting in a conference room with his mother and his doctor who was at the far end of a long table. Bayliss learned that the Hutchinson Cancer Center could no longer offer him treatment. The way the news was delivered and the demeanor of the doctor disturbed Bayliss. With nothing more to be done for him in Seattle, the doctor suggested that perhaps Bayliss' best option was to go home to prepare to die.
After the dire news was delivered, there was a long silence.
Then, Bayliss broke the silence.
"In your medical opinion, how long do I have to live?" he asked the doctor.
"Months, but maybe only weeks," he recalled the doctor saying.
Bayliss turned to his mother.
"I want to go home to Williamstown," he said.
Twice while plans were being made for the trip home, Bayliss found himself alone in the apartment with time to think.
"I actually came to be at peace with the thought that I was going to die and it was going to be OK because I was going home to Williamstown to my family," Bayliss said.
Bayliss also took the time to write a note to his friend and classmate Lizzie O'Leary. The pair had served together as advisers to freshmen students.
"I still have his note, written on a yellow legal pad telling me that there was nothing they could do for him in Seattle and that he was coming home to die," O'Leary recalled.
"I just kept trying to convince myself that everything was still going to be OK for Trevor," O'Leary said, "but I also worried what I would tell our freshmen, who were all terrified."
The second time he was alone in the apartment with his own thoughts, Bayliss found himself getting a little worked up.
"I'm a fighter," he thought. "I'm going to live every day I have to the fullest and anything can happen."
Shortly after returning to Williamstown, Bayliss went to see Dr. Pillemer and related all that he had been through in Seattle: How he had been on oxygen all the time and how the chemotherapy did not work.
When he finished, Bayliss was surprised that Pillemer did not respond right away.
"I looked at Dr. Pillemer and he kind of cocked his head to the side," Bayliss said.
Pillemer's response was far more valuable than any drug or therapy Bayliss had received to this point.
"He said, ‘You don't look that sick.' That was the best thing he could've said to me," Bayliss said. "It gave me hope and it made me think that the little bit better I had felt since coming home might mean something."
On the Internet and through consultation with Pillemer, Bayliss learned that Tom Loughran, a doctor formerly at Hutchinson and now at Moffit Hospital in Tampa, Fla., had found that a low dose of methotrexate -- a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis -- was successful in getting rid of cancer in a few patients with similar symptoms.
Bayliss started using methotrexate along with some powerful steroids and the results were both dramatic and heartening.
"Who would have thought two pills a week and some steroids could make such a difference?" Bayliss said.
As the summer before his senior year progressed, Bayliss started feeling better and better. By summer's end, he felt confident in saying he felt great. Even better, he was found to be in remission. It took only three months to rid his body of cancer.
Bayliss re-enrolled at Williams, which he described as having been "super supportive throughout the entire ordeal."
Always a competitor, Bayliss decided to re-kindle his dream to compete in college athletics. Even though he feared that he had lost all of his athletic capacity, Bayliss tried out for ice hockey and ended up being the last cut.
"That was tough," he said. "But it also gave me the confidence that I could still compete."
Bayliss joined the Eph indoor track and field team for the preseason and concentrated on running shorter distances than he had run outdoors.
Gradually, Bayliss could feel that he was getting stronger and more comfortable on the track. Running different and shorter distances than what he had competed at before was a good approach.
"It helped that I had never run the 300-meter and 600-meter events, so I did not have any times that I could compare to what I was doing that December and January," he said.
Competing in his first indoor meet in the Towne Field House on Jan. 16, 1999, Bayliss really did not know what to expect.
"I just tucked myself in behind the leaders and tried to stay near the top," he said. "When we got to the last lap, I was really feeling good. I was near the front, so I just went for it."
In front of his grandfather and his mother, Bayliss won that 600-meter race in a time of 1:26.14. Excited to win, Bayliss was more thrilled to have been on the track, feeling strong throughout, and knowing he was rounding into competitive shape.
A little more than a month later, Bayliss finished second in the Division III New England Championships in the 400-meter, earning All-New England Division III individual honors. Later, he would earn All-Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Division III honors, capping off an amazing comeback 18 months after starting his methotrexate regimen in May 1997.
During the 1999 outdoor track and field season, Bayliss won the 400-meter in the annual Little Three Meet versus Amherst and Wesleyan. Additionally, he earned All-NESCAC honors and Division III All-New England honors for the 400-meter, 400-meter relay, and 1,600-meter relay.
The Eph 400-meter relay team was close to qualifying for the NCAA Championships, but needed to run at least 3:17 at a "last chance" meet at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to qualify. The Eph quartet of Trevor Bayliss, Aaron DeCamp, Brian Hennessey and Ed Rossier was hopeful.
They ran unopposed, the only relay team on the track, and finished in 3:16, punching their ticket to the NCAA Championships. Despite lowering their time to 3:15.67 and far exceeding their expectations at the NCAA Championships, the Eph team finished 13th.
On June 21, 1999, Bayliss received the Eastern College Athletic Conference Award of Valor, which honors "athletes whose courage, motivation and relentless determination serves as an inspiration to all" and who "exemplify strength of character, perseverance and most importantly, accomplishment deserving recognition as being truly triumphant."
It was the experience with the doctors in Seattle who gave him the bad news and how that news was conveyed that inspired Bayliss to fight for his life and pursue a career in medicine treating patients with cancer.
Bayliss took a year off after graduating from Williams, determined to get his medical school prerequisites at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, while helping coach track at Williams. Although he had majored in biology at Williams, he had been leaning toward a career in ecology.
Bayliss graduated from Albany (N.Y.) Medical School in 2007 and then headed to Dartmouth's Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital for his residency and a subsequent fellowship, each lasting three years.
In August 2013, Bayliss came home to live in Williamstown again, this time with his wife, Amanda, and their three sons, Everett, Charles and William. This homecoming was so Bayliss could join the staff at Berkshire Health Systems in Pittsfield as an oncologist/hematologist.
"Everyone has their own experience with cancer, so I usually do not tell my patients that I had cancer, but because I had cancer I can perhaps relate a little better to their situation," Bayliss said. "All any patient really wants is to be respected and to know that his doctor is committed to him and listening."
Bayliss finished fourth in a recent Steel Rail Half Marathon and teamed up over the winter with younger brothers Jarrett and Jonah to play hockey in the men's league in Berkshire County.
When death blinked, Trevor Bayliss seized the opportunity to fight for his life, eventually earning the right to help others battling cancer.
Cancer Survivors Day ...
Today is the 27th annual National Cancer Survivors Day, typically held the first Sunday in June in hundreds of communities nationwide and around the world. It is a celebration for those who have survived, an inspiration for those recently diagnosed, a gathering of support for families, and an outreach to the community. It provides an opportunity for all people living with a history of cancer -- including America's nearly 14 million cancer survivors -- to connect with each other, celebrate milestones and recognize those who have supported them along the way.
On the Web: http://www.ncsd.org.
On Facebook: facebook.com/CancerSurvivorsDay
On Twitter: #NCSD2014 @SurvivorsDay
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.