For most 22-year-olds pursuing their dreams in life, the trials and tribulations of life can prove trying due to a variety of circumstances. For Peyton Lanphear of Duxbury, Vermont, her aspirations to race competitively in late models faced one of the greatest challenges of all in life in May of 2022.
When Lanphear woke up with a cough about 18 months ago, it was enough to alarm her mother, Stephanie, and her older sister, Reilly.
“My mom was like, ‘You need to go to urgent care.’ So, my sister brought me to the doctor. And then that’s when they thought it was something else,” Lanphear said. “They just thought it was a blood clot in my lung. And then it turned out that my entire body was covered in cancer.”
Lanphear’s latest adversary was not an on track foe that made a passing opportunity difficult in a feature event. Instead, it was a fight for her life with Stage 4 classical nodular sclerosis Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Once Lanphear was informed of her official diagnosis, it was a lot for her and her family to process. Still, she turned to those within her circles for strength and inspiration while processing her initial thoughts about her latest and most critical adversary.
“It was a lot. It was scary. It was overwhelming,” she said. “But I had a really good support system, so I knew it would be fine. But it’s just so ironic to me. You can be fine one day, and then the next morning, you wake up and it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, my life is over.'”
In the preceding months, Lanphear turned to a support system that extended beyond her family and friends. Namely, she found allies who could relate to her experiences from an emotional and physical standpoint.
“I have two close friends that I met through cancer,” she said. “And they both had the same thing that I did. Every day, we would be texting back and forth and being like, ‘Oh, I got a new wig today.’ And I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, no way. I got a new wig today.’ She was going through a stem cell transplant because she had cancer the year before I did, but then she ended up relapsing the same time that I was diagnosed. And so, we were going through treatment at the same time.
“It was nice to talk to somebody every single day who was going through something really similar or who had already been through what I had been through. Hers wasn’t Stage 4; she had Stage 2. But it was good to confide in someone I can talk to like my family members and my friends. But they don’t really understand what you’re going through or how chemo feels, or what it’s like to lose your hair. It was nice every day to be able to talk to people who are not only my age but are going through something similar. So, it was nice to have somebody who really knew the ins and outs of it all.”
While cancer tested the willpower and resolve of Lanphear and her friends, each found strength and comfort to face their battles through their text messages.
“Lily, who lives in Ohio, would text me and she’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m getting chemo this day.’ And I’d be like, ‘I’m getting chemo too,'” Lanphear said. “It was nice to have somebody to talk to during chemo who was going through the same thing.
“My other friend Megan, who lives in Canada, was really helpful with trying to find wigs when I got extensions because I have extensions now. She got the same extensions that I got. So, it was nice to be like, ‘Hey, how did this chemo make you feel? How did this medicine make you feel? What did you do to help make yourself feel better?'”
At times, Lanphear needed more than just verbal support from her new friends. When Lanphear’s fight for her life tested her resolve and strength, she wanted to be nearby her family for an understandable reason.
“There would be times where I would make my mom sleep with me to go to bed because chemo made me feel so awful that I literally would think that I wasn’t going to wake up in the morning,” she said. “I didn’t want my family to find me. The way that chemo made me feel, I didn’t even feel like I was living in my body. I felt like I was there, but I was over here.
“You just feel like you’re living in another universe. My friend Megan literally said the same thing. She had her mom sleep with her. So, it made me feel a little less crazy.”
In some form or fashion, cancer impacts lives around us in grueling, demanding ways. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2022, it was estimated that 1.9 million new cancers were diagnosed.
Whether directly or indirectly, cancer affects the lives of those we know at some point in our lives. In Lanphear’s case, as challenging and dire as her experiences were, she turned to her faith while approaching her fight with a determined attitude.
“Every single night, I always prayed for health of me, my friends and family,” she said. “And then it’s so ironic that when you’ve been doing that for so long and then it’s like, ‘Oh, by the way, you have Stage 4 cancer.’
“It’s one of those things where it’s like… it is what it is. And you have to deal with it because you don’t really have another choice but to deal with it. And I feel like everything you go through, there’s a reason you go through that. And so, I think there is a greater reason why I went through what I did, and hopefully, something positive will come out of it on the other side.”
During Lanphear’s battle against Stage 4 cancer, fans and competitors at American Canadian Tour (ACT) Tour races offered their heartfelt support for the young Green Mountain State native.
“For a lot of people at the track, there were “Peyton Strong” stickers made because I raced the ACT Tour,” she said. “Everybody had the little “Peyton Strong” stickers. The tour ended up buying a bunch of the stickers and handed them out to all the drivers. Almost every single card that we went to when we went to the track, they would all have the “Peyton Strong” stickers on.
“My sister did a whole blow up “Peyton Strong” sticker and put it on her hood. So, it was a pretty big thing. They had t-shirts made. So, whenever we’d go to the track, people would have Peyton Strong shirts on. It was good to see a lot of people standing by my side and seeing a lot of people standing in my corner. You need that support system when you’re going through something like that.”
While Lanphear’s treatment consisted of a different kind of chemotherapy, she tried her best to complete the run despite the effects to her body and health in the coming months.
“No one really knew this besides my close family and friends, but I quit chemotherapy,” Lanphear said. “I didn’t finish treatment. I was supposed to do 12 rounds of chemotherapy. So, I would go every other week for chemo, and I was supposed to do it for 12 rounds to six months. And then I made it to about round six, and I just tapped out. I didn’t want to do it anymore.
“I would wake up and it got to the point where I would go to the doctor’s office and just the smell of the hospital, it would just give me so much anxiety. And it got to the point where they would put my port in and as soon as they would pump me with the saline or take my blood, I would just start throwing up. So, my doctor was like, ‘Let’s just get you to ten and then you can be done.’ And I made it to round eight. I said, ‘I’m not doing this anymore. I’m done. I’m not doing it anymore.'”
Although Lanphear tried to make it to her next round of chemotherapy, by this point, her reasons for ending her treatment were valid and understandable reasons.
“I went to chemo number nine, and I just sat there for three hours just sobbing. And I had three therapists in the room with me. My mom was there too. When you walk into the infusion room, the place that I went to was Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina, part of it are the doctor’s offices. And then there’s an actual infusion room, and there’s probably about 30 infusion chairs. Then there’s three private rooms.
“If you were in a hospital with the sliding doors, well, they ended up moving me into that because I was just so out of it. But there were three therapists in the room. I had three nurses. My mom was there, and I’m just sobbing for three hours straight, begging them not to do anything. I was like, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to do it anymore.’ But they ended up letting me quit chemo. Luckily, my scan came back clear, but I stopped chemo four rounds short. It got to the point where I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Going about tasks that the everyday individual takes for granted proved trying for Lanphear as she required the assistance of her mother and sister to ensure she could be as comfortable as possible in the most difficult parts of her cancer fight.
“I got to the point where I made it up to round six and I was feeling like every single chemo was progressively worse,” she said. “It got to the point where I got to around five and six where my body was just so weak, I had excruciating bone pain where I wouldn’t sleep for three days because my bone pain was so bad. I would literally have to take a bath every single day, every two hours, and I would just sit in a scalding hot tub because that was literally the only thing that could help me.
“It would get to the point where my mom and my sister would literally have to come into my bathroom. My mom would be on either my left or right side, and then my sister would be on the other side, and they would have carry me back to bed or carry me to the bathroom or basically carry me wherever I had to go just because I was so weak. I would come back from chemo, and I would just throw up all night long. I couldn’t really eat anything.”
The decision to end the chemotherapy treatment weighed heavily on Lanphear particularly with research that was being performed from a clinical level.
“They ended up extending my chemo because it was every other week,” she said. “They ended up extending it to every three weeks. And then it turned out to be once a month just because I couldn’t take it anymore. My doctor and my dad were very adamant about finishing chemo. And I was just like, ‘I can’t do it.’ And it was it was hard too because I was on a clinical trial.
“I was on a chemo that they didn’t really know much about. But they were trying to see if it was better. It kind of messed up the clinical trial a little bit… well, a lot of it. So, my stuff didn’t really count towards the trial. I tapped out emotionally, mentally and physically. I couldn’t really do it anymore.”
Fortunately, for Lanphear, her battle against Stage 4 cancer took a turn for the better during the autumn of 2022.
“I finished chemo back in October of last year. But we didn’t end up announcing it until December but that was because I had to have a PET scan,” Lanphear said. “I’m not cancer free. I’m not cancer free for five years. My cells aren’t active right now.
“Technically, you could say that I have cancer, but it’s not active. If it’s not active for five years, then I’m technically cancer free. We were waiting for a PET scan, and I didn’t end up getting my PET scan until December. So that’s when we were able to share the news, and I was able to ring the bell.”
For cancer patients, ringing the bell would be like parking a racecar in Victory Lane after a hard day’s work. Given everything that Lanphear and her family experienced firsthand for five months, it was the first sigh of relief for the spunky, compassionate racer.
“I had my mom and my sister (while) my dad was on FaceTime because he was in Vermont because my family owns their own business,” she recalled. “So, he was taking care of all of that as were my mom and my sister. And we went out to lunch and celebrated. And then we ended up going to Jamaica the month after to celebrate. So, it was… it was fun. It was good.”
Much like an individual who can live to tell the tale of a grueling, difficult moment that exceeds life’s mundane worries, Lanphear’s journey has not been without any worries. Earlier this summer, Lanphear’s scan brought back some fears that crept up for her and her family.
“I was nervous that it was going to come back because we had a scare earlier this year,” she said. “I just had a scan in August because we found a lump and I thought it was back. But it didn’t end up being what we thought it was. It was hard to know between October and December if it was coming back or not. So, it was really stressful. I call it ‘scanxiety’ just because I get like a lot of anxiety when I get scans.
“But it was a relief to know that it wasn’t back, and we could just go on with our lives as normal as possible and not really have to worry about anything because I felt guilty for having cancer. I felt like a lot of guilt for having cancer, which I shouldn’t because it wasn’t my fault, but I did. So, it was a relief to know that I didn’t really have to worry about that as much anymore.”
In the words of Elton John’s 1983 hit song, Lanphear can tell the world that she’s “still standing.” With a new lease on life, Lanphear was back where she wanted to be as a racecar driver in the ACT Tour Series.
The decision to return to on track competition was not without its comprehensible reservations for Lanphear and her support system.
“Actually, it wasn’t a planned thing. My doctor told me absolutely no racing, not happening,” she said. “I had a port where basically your chemo gets infused to. But there’s a little tube that basically goes on your right side. But it goes all the way through into your neck like the tube does, and it goes into your heart. Basically, my doctor was like, ‘Hey, you’re not allowed to race. If it gets hit, it could pull the tube or something out of your heart.’
“I don’t know the exact terminology for it, but basically, she’s like, ‘If it gets pulled out the right way, you could clot and you could die. It’s very risky.’ My sister was still racing, and we were still going to races, and it sucked watching everybody else race and you have a car sitting there and you’re not allowed to do it. And my mom was like, ‘You’re not racing.’ Everyone was like, ‘No, you’re not racing.’ And then my dad was like, ‘You know what? You need normalcy.'”
Lanphear’s return to racing was not the typical Hollywood sports drama film moment. Rather, it was real life with some reminders that a new reality set in for Lanphear, her family, her team and competitors at Oxford Plains Speedway in Oxford, Maine.
“It was the Oxford 250 weekend,” Lanphear recalled. “We had another driver coming to race my car. It was set up and everything. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out because they had another obligation to go to. But my dad was like, ‘It’s yours if you want to race it.’ It was my car. It was already set up for the race. He had spent all this money setting it up.
“So, he was like, ‘If you want to race it, you can. It’s completely your choice.’ It was five days after chemo, and my mom drove me from North Carolina because I wasn’t allowed to go on planes as my immune system was so shot. So, me, my sister, my mom and my dog drove from North Carolina to Maine. This was the literally the day before we shaved my head. I was completely bald. And I ended up racing.”
Even with a daunting, trying battle against cancer, Lanphear’s spirit and demeanor as a competitive, gritty racer never left her. Naturally, her passionate side was on display when her frustrations got the best of her even when she realized the changes with her physical appearance.
“It was funny, and it was overwhelming. And it was ironic because you go to the race and a lot of people stare at you,” she said. “And they’re like, ‘What are you doing here?’ But a lot of people were happy to have me back. And it’s actually so funny because I got mad at one of the guys when I was back in the car. And I think it was in the first heat or something.
“Anyways, we ended up getting into this debacle and I went over to him. I forgot that I didn’t have hair and I still had my helmet on, but I took my helmet off and I was completely bald underneath. And I got back to the trailer, and I was so mortified because I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t have hair.” So, I completely forgot that I didn’t have hair. I was just so mad at this guy that I just didn’t even care. And I’m over here yelling at him having no hair.”
Given everything that Lanphear endured from that May morning of 2022 to her return to competition, a bizarre moment at the 3/8 mile speedway did not put a damper on her optimism and elation with being back in her racecar.
“It was the same race that the lights went off during the race because somebody ended up hitting a pole outside of the track,” Lanphear said. “So, the lights went off mid-race under green. All the lights shut off. And they didn’t end up turning on until an hour and a half to two hours later. I was in the infield, and I was taking a nap.
“But it got to the point where after a certain amount of time, my body kind of shut down. It was 11:30 at night and I only ended up doing a quarter of the race. But it was so good to be back in the car. And then my dad was like, ‘If you want to race the rest of the season, you can.’ So that’s what I ended up doing.”
For those learning about Lanphear, her story is inspirational, relatable and heartwarming considering the ebbs and flows that she and those in her life experienced for the past 18 months. She may not view herself as a heroine but as someone who was dealt a difficult, adverse challenge that she had to confront with her focused, tough New Englander approach.
“I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that out myself,” she admitted. “The last two years have really been rough on me, but I feel like I have been given a new opportunity at life to figure out what I want to do in my life and figure out my goals, my plans and everything. So, you just kind of have to face what you’re going through. Sometimes you don’t have any choice but to be strong.
“So, you kind of just have to face it and get it over with. And yeah, it’s going to suck and it’s going to hurt. But you have to. It’s either you got to work through this and get through it or you cannot do anything at all. So that was kind of my thing – facing it head on and doing what you have to do to get through it. Otherwise, you’re going to not accomplish anything at all.”
Above all else, Lanphear is not taking a single day for granted. Whether she has a good or bad day from this point on, she knows life is not certain and each moment has to count by being present and living life fully.
“It just really opened my eyes to live your life, do what you want to do,” Lanphear shared. “Don’t really wait around to do stuff because you don’t know what’s going to happen within 24 hours from now. You don’t know what’s going to happen in an hour from now. So, you just got to live your life and do what you want and do what makes you happy.”