In an ad that made her famous around the world when it debuted a year ago, Peyton Linafelter does a little dance that instantly captures her spirit.
She’s young. She’s irrepressibly sweet and funny. And she loves life.
Peyton was diagnosed on her 16th birthday with ovarian cancer, a disease that typically strikes women in their 60s. Her doctor believes she’s the youngest in the U.S. ever to have gotten her type of cancer. Her chances of survival once were as low as 17 percent.
Peyton, now 17, shrugs off all the scary stuff. Her cancer is in remission and she’s dancing into the rest of her life.
From teen cancer to modeling
This month, Peyton moved on her own to Los Angeles to launch her modeling career with the NEXT agency. Peyton danced as she finished her 28th chemotherapy treatment, her last for now.
And she recently did a little dance as an extra in the Hollywood film, Life in a Year, with Cara Delevingne and Jaden Smith. The movie about a teen with cancer is due out later this year.
Delevingne was researching cancer in teens when she found Peyton’s UCHealth commercial, which has attracted nearly 400,000 views on YouTube, along with multiple interviews and stories about Peyton that have been shared around the world. The two connected. Peyton shared her insights on being diagnosed with cancer so young and Delevingne and Smith invited Peyton to come to Toronto for the filming and to appear as an extra in a scene in an ice cream shop. Peyton worked directly with director, Russell Pinkett, to ensure the actions, emotions, and dialogue were as accurate as possible. She has since bonded with Smith, and hopes to walk the red carpet with Smith and Delevingne when the movie debuts in L.A.
“This is the opening of a new chapter of my life,” Peyton said.
The fearless young survivor has a way of dancing into people’s hearts.
“Peyton has approached her cancer diagnosis with a strength and maturity of a woman three times her age,” said her doctor, UCHealth’s Saketh Guntupalli. “She has been an inspiration to me and to all who have taken care of her.”
‘We’ve got this’
Peyton’s health challenges began when she was a sophomore at Littleton High School. She was on a trip to Barbados with family friends over the holidays when she began feeling sick. A doctor there did an ultrasound, diagnosed her with abnormally large ovarian cysts, and said Peyton needed to see a gynecologist as soon as she returned to the U.S.
Peyton’s mom, Tera Gharrity, took her daughter to a Denver hospital where doctors confirmed the abnormally large ovarian cyst diagnosis, said that they wouldn’t harm her and sent her home.
For months, Peyton felt lousy, barely able to eat, as her stomach starting bulging like she was 5 months pregnant. The family tried both traditional and alternative treatments, but Peyton felt worse and worse.
“I was losing weight. I couldn’t make it through an entire school day because I was in so much pain,” Peyton said.
Finally, in April, she almost blacked out while taking a shower. Her mother contacted Children’s Hospital Colorado and they told her to bring Peyton in immediately. On Peyton’s 16th birthday, doctors at Children’s in Aurora properly diagnosed Peyton with ovarian cancer. They had never seen it in a teen. They told Tera they could treat Peyton at Children’s if she wanted to receive care alongside girls her age, but they recommended she go next door to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital where one of the region’s best doctors for gynecological cancers, Dr. Guntupalli, could treat her.
Guntupalli, who is also an assistant professor of gynecologic oncology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, had a long waiting list. But he cleared his schedule to see Peyton.
“The first time I heard I had cancer, I was in complete disbelief. My last thought was that I had cancer, let alone Stage IV,” Peyton said.
Her cancer already had spread from her ovaries to her lungs and abdominal cavity.
“It was everywhere,” Tera said.
But Guntupalli put both mother and daughter at ease.
“You’re going to be OK,” he told Peyton. “We’ve got this under control. We’re going to get past this.”
Peyton said Guntupalli’s experience and confidence reassured her.
“He explained everything. Knowing that my doctor knew what he was doing and had this handled made me feel positive,” Peyton said.
“I never asked myself, ‘why me?’ I figured, ‘we’ve got this. I’m going to get through this. I’m going to beat this.’”
‘A much bigger purpose’
Tera wasn’t surprised by Peyton’s upbeat attitude. She’d always been a funny, happy kid. Tera remembers back when Peyton was 8 and her grandfather, a competitive bowler, kept trying to beat Peyton in bowling on the Wii. She kept racking up the wins while barely making an effort.
Finally, her granddad got a spare. He was dancing and bragging, “I got a spare.”
“Yeah. A spare tire,” Peyton responded, without missing a beat.
Peyton started getting chemotherapy treatments immediately. Her lowest point came during the summer of 2016 when a bowel obstruction forced her to stay in the hospital for six weeks. Unable to eat and miserably bored, Peyton binged on episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and befriended nurses, who popped in to critique inaccuracies and silly plot twists in the hospital drama.
When it was finally safe enough to have surgery, Dr. Guntupalli did a full hysterectomy, removed Peyton’s spleen and all of her abdominal lymph nodes. To remove the bowel obstruction, he also had to resect eight inches of her colon and sew it back together. Because every major organ showed signs of cancerous growth, removing all traces of it was a long and tedious process. After an eight hour surgery, Guntupalli deemed the surgery a success and decided he could close Peyton back up. She then spent 2 ½ days in the ICU to recuperate, then went back to the oncology floor for another two weeks before being released.
Inspired by her doctor, nurses and physician assistant, Peyton plans to pursue a career in health care. First, however, she hopes to travel the world as a model.
A modeling scout spotted Peyton during a Taylor Swift concert when she was 15. For years, Peyton’s parents had turned away scouts. This time, Peyton wanted to give it a shot. Cancer treatments interfered for a time. But now, with her GED under her belt and her parents’ blessing, Peyton’s eager to live on her own and focus on modeling. She’s living in an apartment near Beverly Hills and learning the basics first, like how to walk a runway in high heels.
One of Peyton’s goals is to become a Victoria’s Secret model. “It’s so important to re-define perfection and make people understand that scars are beautiful,” Peyton said.
On her Instagram feed, she has proudly shown off her large scar while wearing a bikini. The scar stretches from her breastbone to her pubic bone.
Her excitement about modeling has only grown since she battled cancer.
“I have a much bigger purpose now,” she said. “My agency has been great. They love my scar.”
Instead of dropping Peyton after her illness, the agency is more interested in her, Tera said.
“They want her now more than ever because of her story and her heart,” Tera said.
Touching people around the world
Peyton’s spirit and her determination led her to become one of the faces of UCHealth a year ago. When ad directors came to her with the idea of sharing her story, they talked about getting actors to play Peyton and her mom.
Peyton spoke up right away.
“No,” she said. “I would actually love to be the one in the commercial. It’s my story. I think it would be powerful if you used real people.”
The ad directors took their cue from Peyton and she and her mom spent two days filming. Tera does the voiceover, telling the story of “what’s normal.”
The two said they most enjoyed laughing and giggling during the filming. But Tera had been holding her emotions at bay for well over a year as Peyton was so busy getting treatments and getting better. When she paused to think about the gravity of having her only daughter get such a deadly cancer at 16, she broke down and sobbed.
The poignancy of the ad instantly touched people when it debuted during last year’s Academy Awards.
Peyton started hearing from people around the world.
“People were crying and saying it made them so emotional,” she said. “I had no idea what a huge impact it would have.”
The ad made her feel strong and powerful. It gave her a voice. Now she’s determined to heighten awareness for female cancers and encourage people to see a doctor if they don’t feel well.
‘I would choose cancer’
Peyton grew up living in Colorado, South Dakota and Massachusetts in neighborhoods where she could always roam outside. Her idea of fun is getting muddy, not “all glammed up.” But she loves traveling and hopes her modeling career will take her all around the world.
Despite all the pain she endured, Peyton said that if she had a magic wand, she would never erase the cancer.
“I would definitely choose the illness. Cancer has brought really great things into my life. I’m thankful for my cancer. I’ve met the most amazing people. I’ve had amazing experiences. It’s made me who I am.”
And it’s allowed the world to get to know a girl who’s always in the mood to dance.