BROOKFIELD, CT — When you're just 14 years old and have beaten cancer, what do you do for a second act?
If you're Brookfield High School 9th grader Maddie O'Farrell, you start planning what you can do to lighten the load for other young people looking ahead to lifetimes in and out of hospitals.
The day after Thanksgiving, November 2018, Maddie was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a particularly rare and vicious cancer that targets a young person's leg bones and the soft tissue around them. The disease had taken hold in Maddie's left leg, and by Christmas she could no longer support her own weight, walking only with the aid of crutches.
Ask most people to recall their most vivid memory of their 12th Christmas, and they'll detail the unwrapping of a cherished doll or an adventure with a new sled. Maddie remembers it as the morning her hair began coming out in clumps.
"It makes me laugh now, because that was the least of my problems!" Maddie told Patch.
She tackled those new problems with a spirit and pragmatism that floored everyone around her. But the friends and family who gushed "Oh, you're so strong!" were missing the point, Maddie said.
"What I was thinking is, 'I'm going to do this, or I'm going to die. So which one would I rather do?'"
Her first serious foray into the health care system didn't go well. Doctors at a local hospital told her she would need her leg amputated, "or do this thing where my toes would end up being behind my knee," Maddie explained.
It was pretty much the very definition of when to get a second opinion
Maddie's parents stopped doctor-shopping when they found the specialists at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City. They laid out an amputation-less game plan that involved a series of surgeries and chemotherapy sessions.
She would keep her leg, but lose no small amount of her childhood.
"So instead of playing a sport after school, I would go home and get chemo."
Those treatments eventually caused her to become neutropenic, a condition that weakened her immune system, and made her more susceptible to infection. With her typical glass-half-full perspective, Maddie said the time she spent in home quarantine better prepared her for the coronavirus pandemic.
Her last day of chemo was Sept. 27, 2019. Maddie's cancer was cured. Now, she walks with a severe limp, and usually uses a single crutch, but a regimen of physical therapy is working to normalize even that. After doctors remove a rod from it on May 6, her leg "will probably be the most normal it's been in two and a half years," Maddie said.
It'll then join the rest of the whole person, who's come through her hero's journey a thoroughly and magnificently normal 14-year-old girl who loves making beaded bracelets, watching "The Vampire Diaries," and swooning over Harry Styles.
This weekend, Maddie will be the face of the Circle of Care 5K, a virtual race to raise funds for kids with cancer and their families. The Connecticut-based non-profit provided crucial assistance for the O'Farrell family throughout Maddie's treatment and recovery. (You can join Maddie's "Team Strength" online here; the password is "Andrew12.")
Maddie said she's not exactly sure what career she wants to pursue, but knows it'll be something in the medical field. She said she wants to help kids avoid some of the rough edges she banged into along the way: "I've experienced it from the other end."