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Former American Idol contestant, 26, details struggle seeking brain cancer diagnosis

While having a tumor the size of a peach in her brain has been an overwhelming experience, Young is relying on music and loved ones to support her.
FOX's "American Idol" Season 15 - Top 8 To 6
Five years ago, Avalon Young was a popular contestant on American Idol. Recently, she's been diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 26.Ray Mickshaw / FOX Image Collection via Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Last November on her birthday, Avalon Young, 26, noticed her shoulder kept spasming. At first, it just seemed odd. But then it kept happening with more upsetting symptoms like body shakes and difficulty breathing.

While each episode lasted about 20 seconds, they worried Young and her loved ones. After visiting numerous doctors, Young, a former American Idol contestant, learned disturbing news: She had a tumor in her brain the size of a peach. She’s sharing her story to encourage others to seek help when something seems wrong.

“For me it’s about advocating to take better care of yourself. I know that’s difficult for a lot of people to do. It was difficult for me, too, and it’s scary,” she told TODAY. “It’s something you have to do.”

Simple seizures indicate something more

When Young’s spasms began, they seemed minor. But then she started having more symptoms. The right side of Young’s body would shake and become numb, as her face flushed red and she struggled to breathe. Sometimes she would start drooling.

“It would happen to me like three times a day, which was really suspicious because I'm not epileptic. I've never had something like that in my life,” Young explained. “I just turned 26 years old. So, I felt like I needed to figure out what was going on.”

Since she was 16, Young has been diagnosed with anxiety and candidly shared her experiences with it. Talking about mental health is important to her. When she first visited her doctor, they suggested that her anxiety was causing the problems and prescribed another medication. But Young kept pushing to understand her seizures, thanks, in part, to her mom.

“My mom is the most motherly mother of all and she was like, ‘We need to figure this out,’” Young said.

So Young had blood tests, an EEG, started yoga, visited a therapist and a homeopathic doctor, who recommended “a ton of vitamins.” But still the seizures, known as simple seizures, persisted.

“Nothing was fixing the problem. So, my mom actually had to tell the doctor, like ‘Hey, we need an MRI,’” Young said. “I thought, ‘Here we go another stupid test.’ They actually called me that week and said that there was a tumor in the frontal left lobe.”

Young was stunned.

“It is intense because I’ve never dealt with anything physical in my life,” she said. “I’ve always been pretty healthy … I honestly didn’t believe it when he called me. That’s probably one of the weirdest things to hear in your 20s — that there’s a tumor in your brain.”

Brain tumors affect people of all ages, genders and ethnicities. According to the American Brain Tumor Association, over 700,000 people are living with a brain tumor today. Most times, experts don't know what causes a person to develop a brain tumor, though there are some risk factors to be aware of.

Young's doctor immediately referred her to a specialist. But it would take up to six weeks for her to even undergo a biopsy. She didn’t know what to do. She kept having seizures and it was wrecking her life and interfering with her making music. That’s when her mom took her to the emergency room.

“Neither of us thought that it was something that should wait for six more weeks,” Young said.

When Young showed the emergency room doctors her MRI scan, they scheduled her for surgery immediately.

“They basically told me, ‘You’re going to have surgery this week because it’s actually the size of a peach,’ which if you think about it is pretty massive,” she said.

During a 16-hour surgery on Feb. 26, doctors removed most of the tumor, nestled in the language center of her brain. Waking up alone because of COVID-19 restrictions was tough.

“I wasn't allowed to have lights on the whole time because they had to give me a drink to potentially make the tumor glow while they're operating,” she said. “So, waking up was probably the scariest part. Everybody wants to see their mom or someone that they love when they wake up.”

But her mom visited early the next morning and tended to her daughter. Young had forgotten that she shaved off her long locks prior to surgery and asked her mom to tuck her hair behind her ear. Her mom pretended to do it.

“She’s great,” Young said. “I had a super blessed recovery.”

Still, she faced challenges. At first, it was hard to watch TV because the sound and images at once overwhelmed Young. She was devastated by how hard it was to listen to music for the first five days.

“It was really tough,” she said. “I was really just dying to get back to LA and get back in the studio so I did my best.”

About a month ago, Young learned that her tumor was cancerous and she needed another surgery to remove the rest.

“There’s only 10% of it left, which is really great and after that then I’ll go through chemo and radiation,” she said.

Cancer, recovery and music

“Finding out that I had cancer was probably in the top three worst days of my life. I don’t think anybody at any age wants to hear that but I’m doing so much with music right now that it just feels like it’s the worst time,” Young said. “It sucks to know that this is something that I’m also going to have to fight while working.”

But working certainly helps Young cope with the stress and anxiety that comes up with cancer. She released a single “She Don’t” and she plans on working on her music as much as she can until her laser surgery on May 27.

Her family has a GoFundMe to help cover the costs of treatment. While she will have chemotherapy and radiation after, she’s confident she’ll recover. She’s learned a lot about herself through this experience.

“I don't think people realize how short life can really be for them. When I woke up from the first surgery, I just thought about so many changes that I wanted to make in life,” she said. “The first thing I thought was I need to be the best version of myself every day and I need to do what makes me the happiest.”