Getting to Her GoalMay 29, 2021 ● By Steven Monacelli
From an early age, soccer gave Nahla Turner, a 2017 Reedy High School graduate, a sense of purpose. A cancer diagnosis threatened to take that away.
Ms. Turner got a call on Jan. 9, 2020, while she was at soccer practice at the University of Central Florida where she was the reserve goalkeeper for the Knights’ women’s team. It wasn’t good news.
For months, she had been experiencing strange pains and weight loss that a series of doctors had struggled to explain. Physicians at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston finally figured it out, telling Ms. Turner they had found a tumor on her hip and that she had an aggressive case of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. At the time, doctors thought it was stage four cancer.
Ms. Turner was understandably floored by the diagnosis. “I was depressed, asking myself, `Why me?,’” she says. However, that attitude didn’t last long. Ms. Turner’s parents say she didn’t pity herself. “She was more so concerned with how it was affecting us than how it affected her,” Leaigha Turner, Nahla’s mother, says.
In the eyes of her soccer coaches and family, Ms. Turner is the type who keeps her head down and focuses on honing her craft. She’s a shot stopper, extremely athletic with good reflexes. Although somewhat of an introvert, she’s confident and selfless, a team player through and through. Despite what she may say to the contrary, she’s not one to complain – so much so that her coaches and teammates didn’t know just how much she was suffering in the lead up to her diagnosis.
Ms. Turner began participating in sports as a child, starting with gymnastics. At Reedy High School, she ran track and field. At age 14, she played with an Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) girls’ soccer team in Frisco and was invited to participate in a tournament in Houston. “She went all out and got a knee and a shin to the face, multiple facial fractures in her nose,” her father, Sean Turner, says. His daughter underwent multiple surgeries, but that didn’t scare her away from the sport. “Against the doctor’s wishes, she wanted to get back on the field,” he says. “At that point, I think she really knew that this was going to be her game going forward.”
Ms. Turner’s pain started in July 2019 while she was playing with the North Texas-based SouthStar FC soccer club. She trained and played through the pain, mostly keeping it to herself. Her parents knew and did what they could to help, but her coaches didn’t notice.
That type of behavior is par for the course for Ms. Turner. In high school, she trained with FC Dallas as a part of the now-defunct Development Academy, where she honed her skills as a goalkeeper. Her coach at the academy, Ben Waldrum, remembers her as having been consistent and steady. “You would have never known if she was having a bad day,” he says.
By the time she returned to the University of Central Florida to begin training for the collegiate soccer season, her pain had become a bit harder to conceal. She started a variety of muscular and orthopedic therapies but didn’t reveal the full extent of her struggle. “She hid the pain with over-the-counter medications to avoid becoming declared ineligible to play,” Mr. Turner says. She would wince when she fell on her hip, but reassured her concerned coaches.
Despite the assistance of physical therapists and orthopedic doctors, Ms. Turner’s troubles grew in intensity over the course of that year. She began losing weight – a lot of it. No amount of “grinning and bearing” it could conceal the sharp decline her health had taken.
When she flew back to Dallas in the fall of 2019 for a game against Southern Methodist University, her parents were shocked by her appearance. “Our mouths dropped,” Mrs. Turner says. “She had lost even more weight. It looked like she was limping to the field. So we said, `It’s time for us to make appointments.’” They waited to schedule appointments with specialists in Texas until the college soccer season concluded in November. After that, Ms. Turner saw specialist after specialist, until she ultimately ended up with the cancer diagnosis a few months later.
The Turner family temporarily relocated to Houston for treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Although Ms. Turner had to step away from soccer to begin treatment, she didn’t let it slow down her education. “We asked her about school, whether she wanted to take a break,” Mrs. Turner says. “She actually increased her (class) load. … She even made dean’s list while going through chemo.”
Doctors told Ms. Turner that she may never walk again and that she may have to give up her dream of playing soccer. Instead of allowing the news to discourage her, she turned it into a motivating force. “Soccer is my life,” she says. “A cancer diagnosis is a very life-altering thing, but I didn’t let that change the fact that I need to play soccer. I didn’t want my diagnosis to define me in that way.”
From February through October 2020, Ms. Turner endured a series of chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments. Mr. Turner recalls that after one of his daughter’s chemo treatments, which were typically severely draining, she wanted to kick around a soccer ball in the back yard – nothing intense, just a bit of passing and dribbling. The sport “was fueling her constantly, even on rough days when the treatment had her in bed all day,” he says.
After months of treatment, Ms. Turner was declared cancer free in late fall of 2020. However, she didn’t wait to receive that message to begin training again: As soon as she got approval from her doctors, she got back onto the field. She had to rebuild her strength after the toll the cancer treatments had taken on her body, but her spirit was as strong as ever. “We really saw the fire lit. She was so motivated to come back and be better than ever,” says University of Central Florida Head Women’s Soccer Coach Tiffany Roberts-Sahaydak.
Ms. Turner did just that. At the first opportunity to prove herself during a fitness test, which consisted of a series of sprints, she clocked a personal record by completing 41 of them. “I did better than I ever did in my years at UCF,” she says.
“It was pretty mind-blowing,” Mrs. Roberts-Sahaydak says. “When she came back, we didn’t really know what to expect. I had never been a coach to a cancer survivor.”
The fitness test fell on the one-year anniversary of Ms. Turner’s cancer diagnosis. It was a day filled with a bittersweet combination of emotions: pride over how far she had come, and grief over all that she had overcome. She made a point to commemorate her achievements on and off the field. “Right after the fitness test, I went to the exact spot that I got the diagnosis call,” she says.
At age 21, Ms. Turner says the cancer battle has changed her perspective on life. She is more grateful for what she has and doesn’t sweat the small things as much. However, it didn’t change her dreams or overall trajectory. Her final collegiate soccer season concluded in April. Although she technically is still eligible to play college soccer, the psychology major graduated early, in May, after completing the extra course load she took on while undergoing treatment.
Like any good goalkeeper, Ms. Turner has kept her eye on the ball. She is angling for a spot on a professional soccer-league team and has been in talks with sports agents while attempting to learn whether any club teams may have a place available for her. “That’s my main focus,” she says. She also hopes her story – which recently was highlighted in a segment on the ESPN+ streaming service – will inspire others who are battling cancer, as well as those who may one day be diagnosed with the disease. “Don’t let a cancer diagnosis destroy your dream,” she says.
Steven Monacelli is a freelance journalist and editor based in Dallas. You can find him on Twitter, where he wastes too much time.