Halfway through her sophomore year of high school, 15-year-old Peyton Gully started to notice she was running a little slower than usual toward the end of her cross-country season. A committed student athlete, as lacrosse season began, she once again could tell that she was moving slower—even noticing that her legs felt super heavy. Peyton also developed a severe headache that lasted an entire month. No matter how much medicine she took, it was always there, eventually getting so bad that she ended up in the emergency room, where after many, many hours, Peyton heard the word no one wants to hear: cancer.
Mixed phenotype acute leukemia, to be exact.
Peyton was immediately admitted into the ICU and went straight into treatment, which wasn’t incredibly straightforward, as she had two different types of leukemia at the same time—making her treatment a bit more complicated. She would end up spending a lot of her time there, going back for weeks and even months at a time for chemotherapy, and eventually, a bone marrow transplant.
With Peyton’s types of cancer and treatment, she wasn’t able to physically attend school, which was a big surprise and adjustment for her. Having never been exposed to pediatric cancer, there was a lot she didn’t know. “My initial thought when the doctor told me I had cancer was, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm going to die.’ I came to find out after some more conversations with the doctors that that wasn't necessarily going to be the case, thankfully—at least not at that point in my treatment. But it was extremely shocking and definitely took a while to process what was actually going on.”
After extensive chemo and radiation, the time came for Peyton’s bone marrow transplant. The donor? One of her younger sisters, Anna. “That was just super cool because—especially in the hardship of all that we were going through—that was just a really big blessing to get to share that with her,” Peyton recalls. “And I know that meant a lot to her too, to be able to do that for me, as well—and that's something that we'll always get to share too, which is really cool and sweet.”
Bone marrow transplants are really tough on your body, wiping out your entire immune system. Peyton was in a lot of pain, and the side effects were brutal, but she doesn’t remember a lot of it, thanks to the pain medication. After about a month in the hospital and a month at the Ronald McDonald house, she was finally able to return home.
“I definitely didn't feel normal, but I was making steps toward the most normal I had in a long time,” she remembers. “I feel like I did have a relatively good summer spent at home, I got to spend time with friends, I got to go to the beach with my family, I got to do some things, some normal things I hadn't gotten to do in a while, I had a pretty good summer following that transplant.”
When Peyton headed in for her routine biopsy 100 days after the transplant, she was feeling good. Her doctors were feeling extremely confident, and so was she... which is why the news that her cancer had already returned was shocking.
Her parents delivered the news from the doctor, and Peyton decided she wanted to know the full truth. She begged her dad to be honest when she asked him what this meant. She remembers that conversation and the emotions so well... “He looked at me, and he said, ‘Peyton, it's not good.’ That's when I knew things were going to be very different from the first time.”
She hadn’t known what to expect the first time around, but when she relapsed, Peyton knew what was coming: the pain... missing out on things... “That was definitely something that made the relapse harder.”
A relapse so soon after a transplant is pretty rare, and it was too soon for Peyton to undergo another transplant. The next few months, she underwent a lot of treatments, including a gene therapy called CAR T-cell therapy, just to keep things at bay until she could have another bone marrow transplant. Just before Christmas that year, Peyton received a second bone marrow transplant, this time from an anonymous donor.
Eventually Peyton was able to return to school as a high school senior—a full year and a half later from her initial diagnosis. “When I look back on it, I do think some of the hardest parts for me were not being able to go to school and be around my friends and just missing out on all the typical things that you do as a high schooler. Missing out on sports and school was extremely difficult for me. I felt like I wrongly put a lot of my identity in those things prior to being diagnosed with cancer, so to have all those things stripped away from me in what felt like an instant was really tough.”
It was extremely challenging to be diagnosed with cancer during a season of her life where she was becoming more independent, but Peyton speaks highly of her parents, who went out of their way in every instance to take care of her and love her well. She says that while there were hard moments at the time, ultimately, going through it together brought them closer. She also credits the community she was surrounded by—her family, her church, and her friends. “I have some really great friends who really went out of their way to spend time with me. They ended up missing out on some of the things that typical high school students do, but I was so, so blessed to call those people my friends. They did some incredible things for me and just never failed to love on me and support me.”
But through it all, the thing that kept Peyton going was her faith in the Lord. While she never doubted God’s existence or if He was good, she did have questions. “It was more, why is this happening to me? How could this possibly be a part of Your good and perfect plan for my life?”
As someone who likes to have control—a self-described “big planner”—Peyton had a hard time dealing with all the unknowns and lack of control over what her body was doing. “I never really had control to begin with, but I thought I did in some sense. So, for God to use this illness to show me, ‘No, Peyton, I have control and you don't. I can use this for your good, like you might not see it now, but I can, and I will use this for your good and My glory, like no matter what the outcome is...’ I was able to cling to the hope that is Jesus Christ through all of this. Even though that didn't always make things easier, and I still experienced pain so much of the time, I experienced so much greater comfort and peace and joy.
Peyton looks back on the experience and sees not just the big moments where God's hand was over her journey, but also the little ones too—remembering so many small little blessings that the Lord provided her and her family during that time. “That's why I can honestly say that I am super thankful for the journey that I experienced in regard to cancer. It was hard, but I really grew a lot in my relationship with the Lord, and He continues to teach me things through that.”
Cancer-free for three years now, would she change things if she could? “I just have to trust that He's going to use all those tiny pieces of the story to come together and make a great big one for my life—a story that's not over yet, that's still continuing, and I just have to use my story to glorify Him and all the things that He's done—use those to proclaim His name to everyone that I've come to know. So, I guess my short answer to that would be, ‘No, I wouldn't change a thing.’ Just because I know that even those parts of my story that I didn't like, that they were all a part of it for a reason, and I know that God has a purpose in all of those things.”
Peyton Gully is from Marietta, Georgia, and she is currently studying nursing at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She's very involved at her church, Chapel Hill Bible Church, where she is also an intern. Peyton was interviewed on The Lighthouse Podcast in 2021, which is where she first shared her story with us. To hear more stories like Peyton’s, be sure to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.