I remember the exact moment I found out. Of course I do, it changed my life forever.
It was May 20th. I was at home, watching a movie with my sister. Our mom, who was upstairs, called us up. “Can’t we finish the movie first? It’s almost over.”
But no… She said this was too important.
We didn’t necessarily overthink it but at the same time, it felt a bit weird. We knew something was up, but we sure didn’t expect this. Once we made it up, my mom just sat there – clearly in shock.
My sister Olivia, just nine years old, needed surgery. Brain surgery. There were lesions on her brain. When she said these words… I mean, I can’t describe what it felt like. Not even close.
The shock overcame us, but the courage and strength that followed, has inspired me. Frankly, I’m just one of the thousands of people Olivia has inspired. And now, it’s time to share her story.
My name is Maddi Leigh. I run cross country at Oakland.
I am the oldest of four siblings in my family. I have a brother and two sisters. The bond I have with my family is something very special. We’re incredibly close. As the oldest sibling, I do however feel some sort of… well, responsibility. I want to be a role model for them, you know?!
But when I heard the news of my nine-year old sister having cancer, being strong for them was everything but easy.
I remember the first scary phone call back in December. I was talking to mom and she said Olivia, my youngest sister, had complained about something with her eyes. It wasn’t overly concerning, but it was the start of everything.
In spring, the truly gut-wrenching stuff started.
My mom called to tell me that Olivia had a seizure on the way home from golf practice.
“A seizure? My sister? She’s nine! Our family doesn’t even have a history of that. Maybe it’s just an abnormal thing. An outlier, I guess.”
That’s what we hoped for, prayed for.
It wasn’t the case.
When I got home from school for summer, we found out it was more. That’s when mom called us upstairs. The shock and emotion in her eyes. Olivia would need brain surgery to remove the lesions.
We had to be strong, as a family. For Olivia. For all of us.
Mom didn’t want to tell Olivia right away. That’s a lot to take in for a nine-year-old and mom hadn’t fully processed everything anyways. So, my sister and I took Olivia to get a snow cone while my mom composed herself.
The next morning, my mom finally told her. She never used the word “surgery”. Around Olivia, we called it a “procedure”. Hoping to make it sound less scary, you know?!
Calling the days leading up to surgery a stressful time would be an understatement. We all had to put on a brave face for Olivia.
But a lot of times, moments of raw emotion simply overcame all of us. And there was nothing we could do about it. Like, I remember the Sunday before her surgery, for example. We were all in church together and when the pastor saw us, we just broke down. After all, we didn’t know where this is going. What would happen to Olivia?! To our family?!
Everyone knows that brain surgery is dangerous. We simply couldn’t let the horror scenarios cloud our mind though.
Fortunately, Olivia was able to get the surgery on May 30th. Just 10 days after we all found out. We did whatever we could to encourage Olivia and be strong for one another.
Olivia was so amazing. I don’t know how she did it but she remained positive throughout. The only real time I remember her breaking down was the night before the surgery in the shower. Mom really comforted her there. And when she was saying goodbye to us going into surgery. That was really hard on her, too.
But for the most part, she was incredible. I always think of her as a little baby, I mean, I remember her birth, right? And now, she was here taking on this surgery like a boss. It was inspiring to say the least.
After they finished the surgery, the doctor came out and told us everything went well. We had the biggest group hug. Ever. It was such a great moment.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t over.
Olivia surprisingly made it back home in just three days, but we had to wait for the results. See, they removed the tumor and had to do tests making sure it wasn’t cancerous and how to treat it further. The results were supposed to come in 7-10 days.
It took two weeks.
My mom firmly believed it was benign. All of a sudden though, we had to make more appointments and follow-ups. The process wasn’t over. The spot required radiation.
More nerves. More emotion. More stress.
That whole process was awful. Like the wind was knocked out of me. You get a chance to catch your breath – she’s out of surgery, looks good, and then two weeks later, after it seems like it was over, it all starts again.
Radiation would take six weeks. The sessions would be every Monday through Friday, getting the weekends off. Including the drive, it was about a three-hour process for her almost every day. But even then, Olivia continued to be strong.
Once radiation began, Olivia began to lose her hair. For any girl, this would be a nightmare.
Not for Olivia.
I guess that’s thanks to my mom. She told Olivia something that I will never forget for the rest of my life. She said: “The hair you lose are just soldiers fighting your battles.” I loved that. And so did Olivia.
She was very proud of it. It was her badge of courage… never a negative thing. She would show it off with pride.
Radiation takes a toll on people. And it certainly did take one on Olivia as well. After all, she was a normal nine-year old girl that out of nowhere had to leave school early every day to get hooked up to some machines and battle her disease.
But knowing that she wasn’t alone made it all a bit easier for her. Actually, for all of us.
My dad decided to start something for her on Facebook. Leading into radiation, he encouraged people to share them doing something for 40 minutes – the length of each radiation session – to show support for Olivia, using the hashtag #beLIVing.
Our goal was to show Olivia that she isn’t alone. Sure, it didn’t really compare to what she had to endure, but it was a great way for people to show support. We kind of expected people maybe to do it once a week or so.
No. People did it every day until radiation was over.
It spread faster than we could’ve imagined. People were sharing videos of doing all sorts of activities. Usually, something like running or lifting weights. But people could be doing anything. Mowing the lawn, sewing, even just relaxing as a family. The outpour of support was incredibly moving.
People from all over the U.S, even people from different countries would participate. My dad would compile all these pictures into a weekly video and show it to Olivia.
At one point, my dad said he got 2,500 pictures in one week from people. It was amazing. It really brings tears to your eyes thinking of it.
For six weeks, Facebook wasn’t filled with negativity. It was about people showing support for my baby sister.
And on August 16th, just a couple of weeks ago, Olivia did it. She was officially declared cancer-free. And she got to ring the bell.
Now, she’s doing great. Almost done with treatment. She continues to be strong, and was even able to start school in time. Olivia continues to amaze and inspire everybody.
That’s kind of the amazing part. She has inspired me so much. She made me look at the little things in life that I sometimes turned into big things, and really helped put everything into perspective. It’s made me braver. It’s changed my life.
It plays into my running, too. Sure, I have goals for myself for the season. I want to PR again this year. I’ve done it every year so far and I want to be able to do it again. But everything that’s happened has made me extremely motivated. There’s a breakthrough coming. And a lot of that is because of my little sister Olivia.
Throughout the entire process, my coaches and teammates at Oakland were so supportive as well. Initially, I chose Oakland because it felt right and it was where my grandparents lived. But from the get-go, it felt like family. And during this time, even more so.
My team, whether long-time teammates or freshmen who I’d known for five days, all had my back throughout this really difficult time.
That’s why I was so excited for our first home cross country meet. We only get to do one home event all season, but it was kind of a celebration for Olivia as well. And I knew that she’d be there to support us.
But when I got to the meet, I was more than just surprised. Everyone wore #beLIVing uniforms. I had no clue this was happening. Hard to express how much this gesture meant to me and my family. It was such an emotional day for all of us. Really showcasing what truly matters in life.
At the beginning of this story, I said that I feel some sort of responsibility for looking out after my younger siblings. That I want to be a role-model for them. After all that we’ve been through in the past couple of months, I can definitely say… Olivia, actually, you’re my role model.