Every day, 43 children are diagnosed with cancer in the US. Leukemia accounts for a third of all cancer in childhood. Leukemia is what Maddie Sargent was diagnosed with February 29, 2008. She was six years old.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and in honor of it we asked Maddie to share her story. We first met her at the 2018 Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) Man and Woman of the Year gala in Raleigh, NC where she was a featured speaker.
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I had been to the pediatrician and they finally did the blood test my mom had been asking for. When the results came back, the doctor came into the room and told me they were reserving a bed for me at the University of North Carolina Hospital. She wouldn’t tell us why.
The kind of cancer I had was ALL or Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. More specifically, Pre-B ALL. I remember thinking I just didn’t want it because my grandma died of cancer and I didn’t want to die.
I remember sitting in my hospital room soon after the diagnosis when the doctor came in and told me my first chemo treatment would be that Wednesday. My mom looked at me and she said, “Mads, that’s when we get to start fighting back.” That spirit is what helped me get through my treatment, but my treatment didn’t work like it was supposed to. The protocol that worked for most everybody else hardly helped me at all.
I remember the doctor saying, “I think my eyes are tricking me again.” I soon learned that meant I had jumped out of remission…again. Then came the time he said there was one more medicine he could try to get me into remission, but he didn’t think it would work. When I asked him why it wouldn’t work he said, “Maddie I don’t think we have a medicine as special as your leukemia is right now.” I asked him to make me one and he just gave me a hug. I remember him telling my mom that they were throwing every medicine they had at my cancer and just hoping something stuck because it didn’t ever react the way it was supposed to.
The hardest part was how sick some of the treatments made me. There was one chemo where I had to drink a whole carton of milk every five minutes for three hours because the chemo they gave me could hurt my system badly if I didn’t flush it out.
I had lots of chemo treatments, but they really didn’t seem to work for me. I was pretty far off protocol when my doctor decided the only other thing they could do to save me was to give me a bone marrow transplant. After they decided to do that, I had to have radiation too, along with the transplant and some more high dose chemo.
I was part of a clinical study. I was given two bone marrow donations instead of one. The study was set up because bone marrow transplant is very hard on your body. Sometimes people get a donation that doesn’t work, and they can’t redo the transplant because it’s too hard on their body. What is supposed to happen when you get two donations at the same time is about a month after transplant they find that the strongest donation stays in the body and the weakest one just goes away. Something cool about me—I still have about 80% of one donation, about 20% of the other donation, and a trace amount of my own (which was supposed to be completely wiped out before the transplant).
As of July 15, 2018, I am 10 years cancer free.
What got me through this difficult period of my life is God, my family and the thoughts and prayers everyone gave for me. I learned how important it is to think positive and keep fighting, no matter what. A positive attitude is sometimes all you have but it can always help you. I learned to be thankful for what I do have, no matter what anybody else says about my health.
I remember a lot of things from that time in my life. Some good and some bad things. I remember riding my bike for the first time with no training wheels. I also remember being told I couldn’t ride my bike anymore because my platelet count was too low, and I could get really hurt if I fell off. I remember the day my family got a trampoline and how much fun my sister and I had jumping on it. I also remember the day my doctor said I couldn’t jump on it anymore because my joints were too weak. I remember my first day of kindergarten. And I remember being told I couldn’t go to school with all my friends anymore because my immune system was too low, and I could get sick too easily. I remember lots of blood tests, different surgeries, getting radiation and chemotherapies, and lots of other things kids should never have to know.
I remember one night in my hospital room my mom was praying when she thought I was asleep. As she was praying she started crying and she asked, “Where are you? Are you listening? How can you watch her go through this? Can’t you see how much this is hurting her?” It scared me because I never saw my parents cry. They were always very positive all through my illness. I remember then getting out of my hospital bed and telling my mom, “God is listening to your prayers, he just hasn’t answered yet. You’ll see it will be ok.” Even though my medical outlook wasn’t good, my mental outlook was.
I don’t want other kids to have the same memories I do. Kids should never know that their family has been told to come for one last visit because the doctor thinks the battle is lost. They should never hear that the treatments aren’t working for them and no other options are available. That’s why I’m here today. I believe God and the doctors worked together to save me so I can make a difference and help others.
I have been involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society since 5th grade. That’s when a lady from LLS asked me to be the honored hero for Light the Night. She asked my mom to write a speech about our journey and present it to the people in charge of Light the Night. I asked if I could speak instead. I really surprised her! I wrote my speech and gave it to my teacher to check. At that time, I was the only kid to ever speak for them.
I really like speaking so I continue to do so whenever they ask me, plus whenever I speak for LLS I can help raise a lot of money! I support the ways in which LLS uses that money and I like to think that I’m helping to make a difference. Maybe somebody who is losing hope will continue to fight, or maybe I will inspire someone to create medicines that aren’t as harmful as the chemo we currently have.
We need more money to create more effective treatments and cures. Some of the treatments that were given to me were not available 20 years ago. Those of us who have survived a cancer diagnosis are alive because of the research that came before us. And it’s my mission to keep more people alive because of the research happening today and tomorrow.
Maddie is now a high school senior and looking forward to all the “senior stuff”—varsity cheerleading and applying to college. Maddie hopes to become a pediatric dentist.
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