Helga, be Gone
By Rachael Lindley
Photography by Rodger Mallison
After learning she has brain cancer and receiving a ‘life-limiting’ diagnosis, a Westside wellness entrepreneur, family and friends ‘evict’ tumor, approach life with gratitude
You would never know by looking at Taylor Dukes that she has brain cancer. The mother of two is as happy and vibrant as any other Fort Worth 30-something, but in September 2022, Dukes agreed to a voluntary preventive full body MRI. Days later, she received a life-changing diagnosis: a mass in her right frontal lobe.
“‘This must be a mistake. You’ve got the wrong person,’” Dukes recalls replying when she learned the results.
How could someone so focused on health and wellness have a tumor lurking in her brain? Because of her background as a nurse, Dukes knew brain tumors are usually marked by symptoms like forgetfulness, irritability or, worse, seizures.
Dukes runs three wellness businesses — a private practice; Restore + Revive Wellness Center, which she owns with a business partner on Fort Worth’s Westside; and an online consulting program called Get Your Gut Right — and showed no such indications of trouble. She has one of those minds nimble enough to tackle tough cases yet still remember her children’s friends’ birthdays. She had no inkling a tumor was lodged in the front of her brain.
Yet it was years of health problems that ultimately led her to entrepreneurial ventures in health care, and, suspecting nothing wrong, seek a scan just for the experience.
Dukes, who grew up in the Austin area, earned her nursing degree and began working at a Level 1 Trauma Center as a nurse practitioner. While she enjoyed the frenzied pace, it seemed as if her body was rejecting it. She experienced hair loss, thyroid issues, joint pain, even parasites, she says.
After several years of tests and procedures, she saw a functional medicine provider. That sparked an insatiable interest in the specialty, whose practitioners investigate factors — like poor nutrition, stress, toxins, allergens, genetics and gut health — that can trigger symptoms.
By 2014, Dukes was immersed. By 2016, she and future business partner Dabney Poorter started discussing a functional medicine practice to serve the Fort Worth area. In January 2020, the two opened Restore + Revive just ahead of COVID-19. Dukes, still a nurse practitioner, focuses on functional medicine. Poorter, a registered nurse and certified nutritionist, recently passed her licensing exam to become a nurse practitioner, she said.
“The pandemic hit three months after we opened, so we had to get creative,” Dukes says. The two delivered supplements and immune boosting packs to clients. “Luckily, we were able to retain all our staff.”
Diagnosis: Grade 3 Brain Cancer
A neurologist and an oncologist confirmed what Dukes’ scan found. The diagnosis was a Grade 3 oligodendroglioma, a fast-growing tumor that affects the central nervous system. Dukes’ team told her she would need nonemergency surgery to remove the tumor and advised her to get her personal life and work in order.
Over the next several months, Dukes began a healing and research journey. She traveled to come up with a team and a game plan and began visiting Hope4Cancer Treatment Center, a nontoxic treatment facility in Cancun, Mexico.
Dukes had referred patients to Hope4Cancer for years because of its alternative treatment approaches. Based on her research, Dukes viewed traditional treatments like radiation and chemotherapy as less effective on brain tumors, and she was wary of side effects.
After finding her neurosurgeon in Arizona and setting a surgery date, Dukes began following a ketogenic diet. She wears a glucose monitor and checks her ketones throughout the day — on the hypothesis that eating a diet high in fat and in ample proteins, but low in carbohydrates, starves tumors of sugar.
“It’s not the trendy diet with tons of butter and cheese,” Dukes says. “It’s a lot of veggies, healthy fats, moderate protein, no carbs, no sugars, no alcohol. Nothing fun.”
Additionally, Dukes began high-dose vitamin C IVs and other alternative therapies, some of which she still travels to Hope4Cancer for. She also takes around 50 supplements daily and two prescriptions from an oncologist who specializes in combining conventional therapies with others.
“I have reverence for both medical models — conventional and integrative, functional and holistic — and I feel like merging the two has the best outcome,” Dukes says. “This was the right call for me. I’m not saying this is the way for everyone.”
On Feb. 1, 2023, Dukes evicted Helga, the name she gave her tumor, in surgery at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. The surgeon, Dr. Kris Smith, removed the entire tumor, and Dukes was released a mere 24 hours after surgery.
“While the tumor was in an operable place — which is not always the case — Dr. Smith has a very noninvasive approach, which definitely helped,” says Dukes. “I give credit for my miraculous recovery to a healthy lifestyle, a great surgeon and a gracious God.”
Recovering from brain surgery requires a lot of sleep, Dukes says. “I slept in a dark, cold room for four days in Arizona before flying home. I’d only come out to eat my meals in the sunshine. My sleep schedule was like a newborn’s. I napped twice a day, then dropped down to one nap. I still need about 11-12 hours of sleep a night.”
While sleep is a top priority for healing, so is minimizing stress, she says.
“The hardest part of recovery has been not knowing how I’m going to feel day to day,” Dukes says. “I have cognitive fatigue where I deal with sensitivity to light and sound and constant brain fog. That’s made it difficult for me to get back to work and plan meetings and commitments. I never know when I’m going to have a rough day.”
Dukes has taken a leave of absence from her businesses to focus on healing.
“I was given a life-limiting prognosis by my team, but I refuse to speak those words,” she says. “I don’t want to fall into the fear. I also don’t believe it.”
While Dukes is at home recovering, she continues to keep up with her treatment plan. “It is a full-time job,” she says.
‘Really Hard Moments’
Being diagnosed with cancer at 32 has taken an immense toll on her mental health, Dukes acknowledges.
“I have really hard moments,” she says. “But, for the most part, we choose joy and acknowledge our sadness when we’re feeling it and grieve what our life looked like prior to my diagnosis, but we also are still living life and making memories.”
Dukes and her husband of five years, Ryan, have two sons, Ryder, 3 and Bo, 1. They’re planning vacations with family and friends for later in the year.
“We’ve been under so much stress this year, and we want to live a little bit. I’m working on regaining my strength this summer so we can make it happen,” Dukes says.
The couple attends counseling. She says she struggles with fear and anxiety and worries about not being there for her sons.
“Everything that used to matter doesn’t matter anymore,” she says. “Being a mother is different now. Waking up in the middle of the night, diaper changes, all of it feels like a privilege. Even the moments that feel insignificant are remarkable. Every moment matters. It has totally shifted my mindset.”
Despite her diagnosis and all the fear and change that ensued, she does not regret having the full body scan done. In fact, Dukes is positive it most likely saved her life. She acknowledges her family, friends and faith have played a large role in her journey.
“I’m naturally wired to be a positive person, but I couldn’t have done this without my faith and being able to choose the positive,” she says. “It has helped me immensely. I have my moments, of course, but I choose to get up and be with my kids and have a good day.”
Dukes’ massive support system even threw Helga an eviction party in West, Texas, complete with family, friends, kids, food and music to celebrate the milestone. The soiree, held on a gorgeous day in April, felt like “heaven on earth” to Dukes.
So, what’s next? “I’m still trying to figure out how to restructure my life,” she says.
Although she continues to put her health and healing first, that doesn’t mean she has stopped helping people. On her Instagram account, @taylordukeswellness, she puts a lot of effort into providing health information to her followers. She delves into subjects like functional medicine for anxiety, diet myths, supplementation and even healthy cooking swaps. She peppers in posts that give updates on her healing journey and glimpses of her life with her family.
“Ideally, I want to have so many resources for allergies, PMS, infertility, stomach bugs, that everyone can Google that and my name, and it would bring them to a place with all of those resources,” Dukes says.
Dukes has hired two providers for her private practice. Meanwhile, R+R moved in early April to a much larger two-story building at 4927 Byers Ave. The wellness center hosted a grand opening in mid-April, inviting patients, friends, family and providers for tours.
“You don’t have to be sick to consider wellness,” Dukes says.
R+R now offers more treatments and services than before, Dukes says, including a multitude of IV therapies — 14 customized vitamin, mineral, antioxidant and amino acid IV fusions — to aid in performance, recovery and hydration. R+R also has a shot bar that offers injections to patients in need of an energy or immune system boost.
Other treatments include pelvic floor physical therapy, dry needling and massage therapy. The R+R Farm Co-Op sells farm-fresh produce and meats. The fitness studio hosts Pilates and yoga, and the Dalton Wellness Recovery Center helps manage and prevent sports injury.
Dukes says she relishes her good days and attacks her difficult days, all with contagious positivity. “This is part of my story,” she says, “and I’m going to be faithful to tell it.”