By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Just one day of training wheels was sufficient for Mary Stewart Witherspoon.
"'She does not need training wheels,'" her father, Dwight, said to his wife, Elizabeth. "And her mom looked at me and said, `Take `em off.'" Mary Stewart was 3 years old.
"We want her to be independent, and tough, and make decisions, and learn how to take care of herself," Dwight says. "That's just something we want to pass on to her. She naturally takes that. She has that kind of personality."
Growing up with two older brothers, Mary Stewart has always been in a hurry to keep up, whether it's flooring her battery operated car, or saying, "Faster, Dad," while riding with Dwight on his motorcycle.
"She started proving day one how tough she was," Dwight says.
Born to a biological mother who had illegal drugs in her system while giving birth, Mary Stewart found herself alone in the hospital when her matched adoptive parents learned of the drug use and bailed on the process.
The Witherspoons, who had adopted their younger son through the same agency, raced to the rescue.
"She got through that," Dwight says. "We were five weeks in the hospital getting her healthy again, and out of the hospital and back to being a baby. We always said that defined her toughness in a way. That was just part of her grittiness."
That grittiness would serve Mary Stewart, whose family nickname is Massy, well in the days ahead.
Two years ago, when Mary Stewart was 4, her parents took her to the doctor with a fever and fatigue. Blood tests resulted in a trip to the emergency room, and a terrifying diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia, AML, a cancer of the blood.
"I read a great analogy written by a lady who has breast cancer, stage 4, and her analogy was: You're living a normal life, you wake up one day, and you go to the refrigerator in the morning, get something to drink. You open the refrigerator, and there's a mountain lion in there," Dwight says.
"And you don't have any time to ask why there's a mountain lion in the refrigerator. You just run. You know that the only thing that can kill a mountain lion is a bear, and your goal is to get up the hill and find the bear.
"I think that's kind of the way it is," he says. "You're diagnosed with cancer, and it changes everything."
Chemo, radiation. Extended hospital stays. A bone marrow transplant. The Witherspoons documented their daughter's arduous journey in their blog, the web address for which begins with the letters wehateleukemia.
"No one should have to go through this," Dwight says. "But if there's a type of personality that you need to get through something as brutal as treatment for leukemia, you need to be mentally tough, and physically tough."
Support from extended family and friends -- "Team Massy" -- has helped the family endure.
"Mary Stewart gets well-wishes from probably every continent on the planet," says Dwight, an Auburn journalism grad who is a communications vice president for an international telecommunications company.
"And then I have Auburn. We always say Auburn is a family. You're sitting in your hospital room, and you get a personal video from Coach Bruce Pearl, the men's basketball coach, with all of the players saying your daughter's name," Dwight says. "It means the world. I get emotional talking about it. It draws you even closer. It really touched me, and it touched my friends, and it touched people who know me as an Auburn fan. Auburn, and Jay Jacobs, has sent us messages. It means a lot."
Auburn's cheerleaders joined Team Massy.
The video, featuring Aubie, was a hit with Mary Stewart. In the hospital, she watched it over and over.
"The whole idea was, `We can't imagine what you're going through, but we know you're going to get better,'" says Pearl. "'When you get better, you're going to come to Auburn, and come watch us play, and we can't wait to see you.'"
Auburn's basketball coach has a special sensitivity for cancer patients. At Tennessee a decade ago, one of Pearl's players, Chris Lofton, was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the end of his junior season.
Pearl created an initiative called OUTLIVE to promote awareness and raise funds to support patients and provide for research. When Pearl joined the Auburn family in 2014, he changed the spelling to AUTLIVE.
"It's Auburn Athletics' fight against cancer," Pearl says. "Our way of fighting it is to make people aware of it, to get their prostate checked, mammograms, skin rash -- get it checked.
"If it is cancer, the sooner you find out that it is, the earlier the stage you catch it, the better."
Pearl wants to use the visibility of Auburn Athletics to encourage screenings and early detection.
He also wants to support families like the Witherspoons. That's how the Tigers became part of "Team Massy."
Kim Evans knows that even the heaviest burdens can be lifted, at least a little, by the care and concern of others.
An ovarian cancer survivor, Auburn's former women's golf coach was declared cancer-free three years ago.
"For me, when I was sick, the Auburn family reached out to me," Evans says. "I'm living proof of love and support from an amazing group of Auburn people, and family and friends. And just how much it meant to be a part of Auburn during that illness.
"If we could pull for every cancer patient like that. I just know that's one of the reasons why I came through so big, and still rely on that. Because as a survivor, I still have to go every three months for my checkup.
"When you walk out of it, there is a celebration. But a celebration that's not bold. Because there are so many people who don't get that celebration.
"I've been blessed through all of it. I'm not happy I got cancer, but I'm glad for what it's taught me."
Knowing how much the concern of others meant during her illness, Evans, with support from Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs, came up with an idea to let survivors know Auburn is on their side.
On the first Wednesday of each month, college football's largest video board will light up with the colors of various cancers.
Auburn will light the video board in various colors, including gold for childhood cancer.
In September, it's gold for childhood cancer, orange for leukemia, lime green for lymphoma, teal for ovarian, light blue for prostate, peach for gynecological, violet for Hodgkin lymphoma, and teal, pink and blue for thyroid.
"I'll be excited every Wednesday it goes up," Evans says. "Like I said, I'm just one kind of cancer. I'm just one person. There are millions. And if you look at the calendar of cancer, it's amazing how many cancers there are each month.
"It's just an impact that says, just what people said to me, `We're in this with you.'
AWARENESS, AND ACTION
As important as awareness is, action is even more so.
"They're two sides of the same coin because you need to raise awareness of the plight of these children," says Grainne Owen, who founded Curing Kids Cancer after losing her 9-year-old son, Killian, to leukemia in 2003.
"Raising awareness, that's great, because it makes people want to do something. But, you have to give them something to do. If you're going to raise awareness, you've got to have a call to action, because, otherwise, what good is it?" Owen says. "`Okay, so I'm aware,' but does that help Massy? No, it doesn't.
But if I say to you, you can donate money to Curing Kids Cancer and we will be able to put that money toward finding cures for children just like Massy, then you're doing something. You're doing something positive. You're making a difference. You're using that awareness to change what is wrong and put it right."
Owen's non-profit has raised more than $8 million in the past decade for pediatric cancer research and treatment.
"Lots of people don't like to think there are sick children, and children having cancer," she says "If they just paid a little bit more attention and donated a few dollars, they could make it go away. They could stop having to look at those poor, sick, bored children. They could actually stop it from happening. That is something that we probably couldn't have said 10 years ago, but we can say it, now."
Owen says the convergence of technology with medical and genetic knowledge is leading to advances in treatments.
"They desperately need help, because pediatric cancers are so badly funded. Less than four percent of what the National Cancer Institute allocates toward cancer goes to pediatrics," Owen says.
"Doctors literally are trying to be able to afford traditional chemotherapy treatments for the children in their hospitals, but the government funding doesn't even cover traditional chemo, let alone research," she says.
'LET'S GET STARTED NOW'
Each year in the U.S., 500 children are diagnosed with AML, the type of leukemia Mary Stewart has.
"I was a journalism major, not a math major. But that turns into 5,000 kids over a decade," Dwight says. "That means you have 10,000 parents today who are holding the hand of a kid who's going to be diagnosed with this cancer. That's not a small number.
"The clinical community calls that an orphan disease, meaning not enough people have it to really put research money behind it, so the only care that kids who have AML get is stuff that's already been tested on adults or animals. We have to do better. As a society, we need to do better. I'm ignorant of that. I didn't know that before this, so I don't blame people for not knowing."
That's why Dwight and Elizabeth share their daughter's story. Not only to help Mary Stewart, but hopefully to spare other children who have yet to be born.
"What I want to do with my blog and telling the story, is saying, `If you don't have a cause, childhood cancer is a big problem.' A lot of kids are suffering from it. They're not just dying. They're suffering, and dying," he says. "The treatment is very difficult. Chemotherapy and radiation have been used for 25 years. That's not the cure of cancer.
"We haven't found it yet, and the only way we're going to find it is to put money into it, and get these doctors and researchers like the ones at Stanford and St. Jude and many other places the money they need to find the cure. They will find it, but let's not wait 20 years, and let's not even wait 10 years. Let's get started now."
Mary Stewart beat AML once before. Then, as it often does, it came back.
Now, she's fighting again. After treatment at St. Jude in Memphis, she's in remission.
A stem cell transplant will take place at Stanford near the Witherspoon's home in northern California.
"Phase one is complete," Dwight says. "We managed to get Mary Stewart into remission. That's great news. Some people don't manage to do that. And the next part is the stem cell transplant. That's going to be hard. It's difficult.
"To give a person new bone marrow, you have to kill all of their existing bone marrow, and that means you kill their immune system. For two or three weeks, or a month, you could even say up to a hundred days, their immune system is severely compromised. That puts them at all kinds of risk, not from the cancer, but from the actual treatment. For cancer patients, not just with leukemia, that is often one of the biggest challenges, just surviving the intense treatment. That is the second part.
"I made the analogy, if we're going to climb Mt. Everest, getting into remission is kind of like getting to base camp. You've got to get there before you can climb the mountain, but maybe that's the easier part of the two."
At Elizabeth's insistence, Dwight followed through last week on plans he made before Mary Stewart's cancer came back. An Auburn reunion with friends who met as students 25 years ago.
While on campus, he visited with Coach Pearl, thanking him for the video and well-wishes. Dwight showed the coach a video of Mary Stewart playing basketball at St. Jude, making over-the-head shots with her back to the basket.
"They say your attitude has an enormous say in whether or not it's going to be something you're going to survive," Pearl says. "Massy feels this support and encouragement, and confidence from friends, family and the Auburn family, and she has a better chance to survive. And that's what AUTLIVE is all about, and that's what we're trying to get accomplished."
That's why the video board at Jordan-Hare will shine on Wednesdays. For a brave first-grader in California who loves Aubie. And for thousands of others like her.
Remember those training wheels? The ones Mary Stewart discarded after one day? Turns out mom and dad were right.
"We took the training wheels off," Dwight says. "She took off. She's never looked back."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer