PENSACOLA, Fla.— Evan Taylor doesn’t really consider himself an artist. Before June, the last time he picked up a paintbrush was nearly six years ago.
But the vivid undersea mural he completed recently at the Nemours Children’s Clinic at Sacred Heart Hospital tells a different story. In the center of the deep sea wonderland of marlins and dolphins is a large, gold ribbon. For many of the young patients who walk past the painting each day, it tells a story of hope.
Evan was one of those patients. On Oct. 15, 2007, a month before his 14th birthday, he was diagnosed with leukemia.
“I was just kind of in shock,” he recalled. “When you’re a teen, you’re not conscious of your own mortality. You’re not aware of the road ahead.”
The road ahead for Evan and his family was a long one filled with daily bouts of nausea and pain, weekly visits to the hospital, months of homeschooling and countless tears.
“It really makes you grow up fast,” Evan said. “You have to think about things that most normal kids never have to go through . the long road of treatment, seeing your family breakdown.”
It’s an inside perspective that Evan shares with about 10,400 kids. That’s roughly the number of U.S. children under age 15 who were diagnosed with cancer the same year he was, according to the National Cancer Institute. The disease is the second most common cause of death among children between the ages of 1 and 14 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, surpassed only by accidents.
But at age 19, Evan is a survivor, now studying electrical engineering at the University of West Florida.
He is using his own experience — and talent — to paint a light at the end of the tunnel for other children battling the disease.
“(Painting) was something that was an escape for me for when I was here,” he said, staring at the mural now gracing the hospital Infusion Center. “Being able to do it right here would just help these kids to be able to escape from the pain and everything.”
In the early days of his diagnosis, Evan found relief in art.
Soon after beginning treatment, the former Ransom Middle School football player was no longer able to play sports, so he took up painting lessons to occupy himself. In 2008, through Make-A-Wish, he even received pointers from his artistic idol Guy Harvey. But shortly after, he said he lost his desire to paint, that is, until June of this year.
“My mom asked me if I would like to do one for Nemours (Children’s Clinic), and I thought it was a great idea because I’ve been here so many times,” he said.
Evan and his mother, Dalia Taylor, share a particularly strong bond. They are both cancer survivors.
On June 15, 2012, Dalia, 53, learned she had breast cancer. But the shock over her own diagnosis paled in comparison to her reaction to Evan’s, she said. Six years later, the memory still brings tears to her eyes.
“It was the hardest day of my life,” she said. “When you’re told your child has cancer, your whole world falls apart. You’re grasping for air and you’re just trying to hold onto every minute, every day.”
The support of friends and a strong faith in God got the family through it, Evan and Dalia Taylor said. Evan’s cancer went into remission about a year ago, and Dalia completed her last round of cancer treatment in April.
On a recent afternoon, the two, wearing gold shirts and Childhood Cancer Awareness buttons, said their aim now is to offer support and encouragement to other families.
Dalia said she is working toward an outreach ministry for pediatric cancer patients and their families.
A letter she wrote to Gov. Rick Scott recently helped prompt him to recognize September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. A copy of the Sept. 3 proclamation she received now hangs in the Children’s Hospital.
“(Evan) went through a lot, but some of these kids go through unspeakable things fighting cancer,” Dalia said. “These families really need the community’s help.”
Evan said he plans to raise awareness and funds for childhood cancer through his artwork, signing each painting with a gold ribbon near his name. The masterpiece that graces the hospital wall serves as a powerful testament to other teens still undergoing the daily stress of the disease, pediatric oncologist Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz said.
“I think knowing that one of our former patients painted that picture, especially for some of the older kids, makes a difference because they can say, ‘Look, I can get through this, and I can go on to do amazing things, also,’ “ Schwartz said.
Through his work, Evan has had the opportunity to meet other young cancer patients at the hospital, sharing stories and letting them name the fish in his mural.
His message to them is simple but powerful.
“Never give up. Never, ever, ever give up,” he said. “There were times when I thought that this would be my life forever, and there was a lot of pain I was going through, but just don’t give up.”