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‘We Can Do Hard Things’: Grace Taylor's Success in Harvard Women's Lacrosse While Battling Cancer

Sophomore defender Grace Taylor runs through her teammates in a huddle at one of Harvard women's lacrosse's spring games.
Sophomore defender Grace Taylor runs through her teammates in a huddle at one of Harvard women's lacrosse's spring games. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletics
By Sydney Farnham, Crimson Staff Writer

Earlier this month, Harvard women’s lacrosse’s sophomore defender Grace Taylor earned her second All-Ivy Honorable Mention accolade as a key member of the defense that led the Crimson to the Ivy League women’s lacrosse tournament. Impressive, yes, but even more impressive is how Taylor was using her stick as a cane less than six months earlier.

The Dedham, Mass. native is the middle of three children, in a family of avid athletes. Her mother played collegiate lacrosse and while it wasn’t her favorite growing up, Taylor was enticed by the speed and aggression of the game she now loves. When deciding where she would further her lacrosse career, she was drawn to the culture head coach Devon Wills was building at Harvard.

“I wanted to be part of a team that was like creating a new standard. And then I also have a younger sister, so I really wanted to be close to her. I wanted her to be able to come to my games and to be part of her life as well,” Taylor said.

Having her family close would prove to be indispensable when last August — less than an hour before fulfilling her duties of a Peer Advising Fellow to the class of 2026 at first-year orientation — Taylor was diagnosed with an aggressive variant of papillary thyroid cancer. She had been sent by her primary care physician to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) after they discovered swelling in her thyroid at a routine visit. Taylor had prior experience with injuries, but there is no game plan for a Division I student-athlete battling cancer.

Following her diagnoses were countless medical decisions to be made. For most people, the easier choice would be to step away from school and sports and focus on their health. Instead, Taylor leaned into her communities for support, remaining enrolled for her sophomore fall.

“People thought I was crazy. They told me I was crazy, but I think it was like, I knew if I came home, I would be so wrapped up in my own misery and pain,” commented Taylor when asked about the decision. “I think it was like partially the distraction and then it was like a big part was being part of my team. And I wanted to fight to be able to compete again.”

In mid-September, Taylor underwent two procedures to have the cancer and metastasis removed. After being bedridden for two weeks postoperatively, she commuted to Cambridge. While there were certainly moments when she doubted herself, she made it work with the support of her family.

“I'm fortunate that I have parents that were able to support me and sacrifice for me. My mom was getting her master's and she took a semester off so [that] I didn't have to,” Taylor recounted.

Her second family, Harvard women’s lacrosse, as well as her roommate, both played a huge role in supporting Taylor through her diagnosis and treatment. Taylor was clear in her plans of returning to competition early on and her team backed her up every step of the way.

“The biggest thing my coaches did was believe in me and even if they doubted me, they never showed that,” Taylor said. “I think that was really important because so many people around me were starting to doubt [me].”

“I think on the days that it's really hard, it's easy to amplify the doubts, but I had coaches and teammates who believed in me that I was able to like to amplify their voices,” Taylor said.

Taylor drives the ball up the field at the Crimson's 10-9 defeat of Yale on April 15, where Taylor recorded turnovers for Harvard.
Taylor drives the ball up the field at the Crimson's 10-9 defeat of Yale on April 15, where Taylor recorded turnovers for Harvard. By Courtesy of Harvard Athletics

Over winter recess, when she underwent radiation treatment, which left her isolated for the holidays, two gift baskets were delivered to Taylor — one from her Harvard teammates and another from Columbia’s women’s lacrosse program. Stripped of much of her strength, but determined to return to lacrosse, she turned her sights to the 2023 season.

Taylor adopted and began sharing the motto “We Can Do Hard Things.” When asked where this phrase came from, she shared it was a feeling, an adage she had adopted as an athlete, not as a cancer patient.

“I can do anything for 24 hours. Sports showed me that I can compete for 24 hours. I can endure for 24 hours. You don't have to go win a marathon or win a race — we can do hard things,” Taylor shared.

“It's just like taking one step forward, sometimes I just had to literally crawl forward, and sometimes other people had to carry me,” she said. “It's not like you're doing something hard alone —you're doing something hard with a support system, with a group of people that can move you forward.”

On February 19th, five and half months after being diagnosed, Taylor returned to the field for the Crimson in its season opener against Michigan. She had been cleared by her physicians and trainers for “diet and exercise,” thereby defining a return-to-play plan for an athlete battling cancer. After months of deservedly maintaining her privacy within a close circle, she decided it was time to use her story to help others.

At MGH, Taylor is a part of the Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Program (AYA) which was formed under Dr. Annah Abrams. The program aims to acknowledge the unique circumstances that young adults face in making their own medical choices and leading social and developing lives. Harvard women’s lacrosse decided to honor the program that had done so much for one of its own by dedicating its April 15 home game against Yale. Taylor and her teammates were able to raise over $6500 for the campaign.

“That was one of the happiest days of my life, I think,” Taylor reflected. “I love beating Yale, but [the AYA] program has been really instrumental in helping me balance a lot of like the nuances of being a cancer patient, [of] trying to be a student and an athlete.”

She also hoped to create a new narrative and community surrounding cancer in Division I lacrosse and athletics. Taylor wanted to help create a blueprint where there hadn’t been one — a place for other athletes to turn for some much-needed guidance that she had been missing.

“I think being back on the field and showing myself and other people that I could play gave me the courage to share my story,” she said. “When I was going through it, I had no one to look up to, and I didn't even know how to come back from surgery —I didn't know how to come back to radiation.”

“There were like a lot of things that I wish I knew or that I could have changed, but I had no one to talk about it with.”

Following the game, Taylor heard from many other athletes who embraced her message of “We Can Do Hard Things,” receiving countless direct messages on Instagram and even a message from the HEADstrong Foundation — a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families affected by cancer — which offered its support.

While Taylor’s battle is not over, her perseverance and initiative have inspired others and pioneered a support-based forum. She has blazed her own path forward, leaving no room for those who doubted her or held her back. She has had hard days — some of the darkest of her life —but Taylor has also gained a new perspective on lacrosse and life.

“There was a moment where I was told I was really sick and I had a moment where I was like ‘Nothing I've done matters,’” she recounted. “It's like, the grades aren't going to save you like nothing that I've really done felt significant except for the love that I had for my people and the love that they had for me.”

She also experienced this shift in perspective on the field, saying, “To compete is such a privilege — that's been part of the culture that we're building [here at] Harvard. [Harvard] women's lacrosse is like, ‘We are hungry to be [here], we want to compete, we sacrifice a lot,’ and I think like I had to fight like hell to be able to return to the fields.”

Taylor played in all but three games for the Crimson this spring and led her team in groundball pickups — six of which she made against Yale. The sophomore has two seasons left, but she has already made an immeasurable impact on those around her by leaning into those who know her best — her teammates and her family — despite the unknowable challenges the past year has thrown at her.

— Staff writer Sydney Farnham can be reached at sydney.farnham@thecrimson.com.

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