BILLINGS – At the age of 5, Morgan McQuillan received her first cancer diagnosis.
It’s news the now-20-year-old would receive four more times over the following 15 years as her cancer relapsed, following each one up with intensive treatment and a subsequent clean bill of health.
It’d be easy for her to be bitter or desperate or give in to feelings of hopelessness and frustration, but McQuillan said it’s more important to choose a different path.
“My philosophy is you don’t have control over the hand you’re dealt, but you do have control over how you play it,” she said. “You can play a really crappy hand or you can play a really good hand. Just try to make it positive. You have that choice.”
The five-time cancer survivor grew up in Joliet and now attends college in Billings. To her, playing the hand well has meant a 14-year involvement in cancer survivor support, which included taking on a team captain role for the Yellowstone County Relay for Life cancer fundraiser as a sixth-grader and acting as the survivor chair of the Climb to Conquer Cancer at Red Lodge Mountain for the last six years, all while navigating repeated cancer relapses and the subsequent treatments.
It’s also earned the plucky young woman the featured speaker role at this year’s free and open-to-the-public Relay for Life kickoff event on Thursday evening.
McQuillan said that she hopes those in attendance can take a few things from her words, including that while people may heal physically, they need hope to survive emotionally.
“Having hope,” she said. “That’s really important at the relay. That underlines the loss of what every survivor needs; hope and attitude.”
Cathy Cullen, a Billings-based representative of the American Cancer Society, said McQuillan embodies much of what the relay is about and immediately hooked ACS representatives when the met several years ago at the Climb to Conquer Cancer.
“Morgan’s why we do this,” she said. “We were so mesmerized because of her attitude.”
McQuillan was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer – at 5 and soon had one of her legs amputated as part of her treatment, which also included a yearlong schedule of two weeks at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota followed by one week each at a Billings hospital and at home.
Due to the extreme rarity and uniqueness of her cancer, McQuillan was sent to the Mayo Clinic instead of a Denver-based hospital that usually provides specialized treatment to children from the Billings area.
Seven years later, her cancer relapsed for the first time, showing up in her soft tissue and requiring surgery. At the age of 15, Morgan relapsed again, this time with the cancer showing up in her jaw and requiring surgery and six months of chemotherapy.
Two years after that, when she was 17, McQuillan’s fourth round with cancer began when it was found in her pelvis. She underwent chemo and radiation, which ended up causing lasting nerve damage.
In the summer of 2014, doctors found a small cancerous tumor, which required surgery in September.
“I went back to Mayo in December, and I got a clean bill of health,” McQuillan said.
She first got involved with Relay at the age of 6 when her older sister, who was in high school, started up a team as “her way of fighting back,” McQuillan said.
By sixth grade, she was a team captain herself and jumped on the Climb to Conquer Cancer, which is also an ACS event.
“I kind of found myself involved in it,” she said. “But it was awesome. it was meant to be.”
Now studying human services at Montana State University Billings and on track to graduate later this year after three years of schooling, McQuillan hopes to earn a master’s in social work and become a clinical social worker.
She said it’s important for people, whether or not they’re cancer survivors, to remember that despite individual challenges, everybody shares a few common threads.
“I’m a human being,” she said. “I have my bad days and it’s OK to have bad days. We’re not all going to have the same story but we can all fight together.”