The Power of Persistence and Perspective: Igniting the Extraordinary at ONS With Kelsey Tainsh, BS

Kelsey Tainsh.

This year’s keynote address at the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) 49th Annual Congress was given by Kelsey Tainsh, two-time pediatric brain tumor and stroke survivor and professional inspirational speaker. In her keynote address, Ms. Tainsh shared her patient journey with the audience and underscored the incredible difference that nurses make in their patients’ lives. After returning from ONS Congress, she sat down with Oncology Data Advisor to share an additional glimpse into her journey towards becoming a professional speaker, the role that failure played in her recovery, the importance of creativity and humor, prioritizing self-care and making time for activities that you’re passionate about, and the remarkable impact of oncology nurses.

Oncology Data Advisor: Thank you so much for coming on with us today, Kelsey. Would you like to tell us a little bit about your story that you shared during the keynote at ONS?

Kelsey Tainsh, BS: In my presentation, I talked about the power of persistence and perspective. I shared my personal story, but I also shared stories and experiences that I’ve learned throughout my life. The point of that is what the audience takes away from it and what they can get out of it, but I do share the patient perspective and the incredible difference that nurses have made in my life. With two brain tumors and a stroke, I had amazing doctors and an amazing support system, but nurses were the ones who were there with me every step of the way. I speak all around the world and I speak to a lot of different people, but it’s very special for me when I have the opportunity to speak to nurses, because nurses, again, have really impacted and changed my life.

Oncology Data Advisor: Awesome. I was there for your keynote presentation, and it was a great talk.

Ms. Tainsh: I try, as I’m sure you know, to bring humor into it. A lot of the stories and experiences that I shared, especially with my personal experience being a patient, are not funny. They’re scary and they’re real, and nurses helped me get through that. Once I was able to find that humor and share my story through humor, that’s when it really changed and that’s when it was able to have the most impact.

Oncology Data Advisor: Absolutely. Would you like to tell us how you decided to start doing inspirational speaking?

Ms. Tainsh: My first brain tumor occurred when I was five years old. When we first found out that I had a brain tumor, I was introduced to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit that grants a wish to terminally ill children, and I had my wish granted. When I was a little girl, I didn’t want to be a speaker. I wanted to be a professional actress and spend time in Los Angeles doing movies and television. Through that experience with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, they asked me to do a campaign with them and help them raise some money. I did some news articles and TV appearances with them, and we did a billboard together.

Then one day, they asked me to get up on stage and speak, and without telling my parents, I said yes. I was 11 years old and had no idea what I was doing. I got up there and did not do a very good job, but that was my first speaking engagement, and I fell in love with speaking. That’s how I got started, by speaking for nonprofit organizations. Then in college, I knew that I wanted to be a full-time speaker, but I wasn’t ready. The reason I wasn’t ready is because I had no life experience—I spent most of my childhood in the hospital.

Also, truthfully, I thought that speaking was all about me and my personal story, when really it has nothing to do with me at all. Speaking has to do with the stories and experiences I share—some of which are about me—but it’s about how they relate to audience and what the audience can take away and learn from those stories and experiences. I went to college, and I got a degree and went on to work for the Coca-Cola Company. Then I tried to be a speaker for the second time. I succeeded the second time, and I started speaking. So I kind of failed the first time around, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I then succeeded the second time through practice, mentorship, and finding people who were doing what I was doing and learning as much as I could from them.

Oncology Data Advisor: Thanks for telling us about your story. That actually leads right into one of the next questions—why was failure important, both to your recovery as well as to getting your speaking career started?

Ms. Tainsh: We all fail in life. When I woke up paralyzed, I was right-handed, and I was going to have to learn to use my left hand. We knew I would walk again, but at the time we didn’t know how much function I would get back in my right hand. As I learned to do things with my left hand, I didn’t just fail once or twice or three times. I failed five, 10, 100 times over and over. Then that one time I’d get it, and I’d be able to do that thing with one hand that most people do with two. Failing over and over again has led to my success in life because it’s taught me to always give 100% and just get back up when you fall.

That’s true, again, both with having a stroke and waking up paralyzed and with my personal life. As I was just telling you, the first time I tried to become a speaker, I failed miserably. I watched other speakers around me succeed, and I failed and I failed and I didn’t understand it. Something interesting I’ve learned in life is that things happen when they’re supposed to, not when we want them to. But if we want them badly enough and we keep trying, they will happen; at least that’s been my experience. The act of failing and trying over and over again is what’s led to my success in life, because it’s taught me not to give up, and that there’s more than one way of trying and more than one way to succeed in life. There’s a whole bunch of different ways to do one thing.

That relates to my personal story in two ways: as I left my job at Coca-Cola and started to become a full-time professional speaker, but also in my battle with cancer and a stroke. The way I do things is different because I only have one hand that works all the way. My right hand still doesn’t work, so the way I brush my teeth, tie my shoes, cook, write, type, and take a shower is different because I’m different. But different isn’t less than; different is just different. The sooner we’re able to adapt and learn to do things differently in life based on our circumstances and our surroundings, the better our lives will be.

Oncology Data Advisor: Thanks for sharing that perspective; that was a great answer. Failure is definitely a big piece of the puzzle in moving forward. What are some of the other things that helped you move forward after your stroke?

Ms. Tainsh: I kept a “never give up” attitude, because giving up was never an option. I had a great support system, a passion for my job, and a sense of purpose. I found out what I love to do when I’m not speaking, which is snowboarding through adaptive sports. Keeping a sense of humor has really helped me to move forward in my life.

Oncology Data Advisor: Speaking of finding things you love to do, another question based on what you talked about in the keynote—why do you think creativity is important?

Ms. Tainsh: I think creativity is incredibly important because it allows us to take the things that seem impossible and do them differently. As I was telling you, sometimes we just have to learn to do things differently. We need to think outside of the box and realize that there’s more than one way to try and more than one way to think. I think we all have ideas in life, but many people don’t act on their ideas. The reason for my success in life, and I think the success of nurses and the amazing work that they do, is because they’re able to be creative and look at things from a different perspective.

Oncology Data Advisor: You spoke a little bit about this at the beginning, but why are oncology nurses important to you?

Ms. Tainsh: Oncology nurses are important to me because they saved my life. They took care of me and were always there for me. Every day, they were there for me through the nausea, pain, and dizziness. Through all that I experienced, they were there keeping my spirits up, telling me stories, making me laugh, and again, just taking care of me altogether. What’s interesting is that in such a difficult time, many of my happiest and most positive memories are with and because of my oncology nurses.

I had a whole care team and a whole support team—doctors, nurses, physical therapists, hospital staff, my parents, everybody was there for me. But the nurses and the oncology nurses are the ones who know the patients the best, because they spend the most time with them and are there with them every step of the way. I wouldn’t be alive without my oncology nurses, nor would I have such the positive outcome that I do. They didn’t just save my life; they changed my life. They helped my parents, as well. One of the most important things that oncology nurses and all nurses do is that they’re not just there for the patient—although that’s their number one priority, to be there for the patient and take care of the patient—but they’re also there for the families, and they help the families through the process, as well.

Oncology Data Advisor: It is really amazing how nurses are really not just there for the patient, but they help everyone who’s involved in the patient’s care. Oncology nurses are definitely very special. The last question I have for you has to do with the theme of ONS this year, “Ignite the Extraordinary.” How do you fuel your passion and also help ignite the extraordinary in the audiences that you speak to?

Ms. Tainsh: I continue to fuel my passion by always remembering how fortunate I am to have a job I love where I try to help people every day. I also make sure to take time to take care of myself and find my passions outside my job. My job is my passion and I love to speak, but I also am a para-snowboarder. Whenever I’m not speaking, I’m snowboarding, and I take as much time as I need for myself. Self-care is incredibly important.

I try to ignite the extraordinary in my audiences by reminding them they have the ability to make an incredible difference in the lives of others every day, helping them to see that any dream and any goal they have is possible. They might just have to adapt and try to do it differently.

Oncology Data Advisor: Thanks so much for your time today and sharing these messages and words of inspiration with our audience. I really enjoyed talking with you.

About Kelsey Tainsh

Kelsey Tainsh is a two-time pediatric brain tumor and stroke survivor, a para-snowboarder, and an acclaimed inspirational speaker. She experienced her first brain tumor at age five, followed by a second tumor and a stroke at age 15. She overcame significant physical challenges and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Florida. Now, Ms. Tainsh speaks to organizations and corporations across the world about the power of persistence and perspective, including at Harvard Medical School, the Coca-Cola Company, the Society of Pediatric Nurses, the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, and the Oncology Nursing Society.

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Kelsey Tainsh (2024). Available at:

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