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|Cheek to be honored at Relay of Life|
By Leslie Young
Meredith Cheek is a bright, vivacious 25-year-old woman.
She is also a 23-year cancer survivor and the honoree for this year's Franklin Parish Relay For Life fundraiser of the American Cancer Society.
As she relates the story of her long ago battle with cancer, it is clear that the illness has had a huge impact on her life – affecting both her childhood and the woman she has become.
"When I was two and a half, my parents were nervous wrecks," Meredith said. Mugs and Dixie
Cheek of Wisner had been up every night for days tending to a sick child who was unable to be soothed. It was August, 1986.
"After I was misdiagnosed several times, my mom followed her motherly instincts," Meredith said. "She had a feeling that something was seriously wrong."
A consultation with her pediatrician, Dr. Bonita Dyess in Monroe, led to Meredith's hospitalization for a series of tests.
"The results were a parent's worst nightmare," Meredith said. "My white blood count level was extremely elevated and my spleen and lymph nodes were also enlarged.
"The results pointed to cancer."
That day, she and her parents were flown to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. A bone marrow aspiration confirmed that Meredith had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
"I don't remember much leading up to the trip to St. Jude, but I remember everything about it from that point on," Meredith said. Some have questioned whether she truly remembers or is just reliving what others have told her, but she's emphatic about it.
"I remember the treatments, I remember my mom holding me in her arms during chemotherapy. I remember chewing Juicy Fruit gum to get the bad taste out of my mouth that was caused by chemotherapy."
High doses of chemo and radiation were necessary, creating side effects that were painful and difficult. She was very sick, suffered with painful ulcers and lost her hair twice.
"Losing my hair didn't bother me too much," she laughed. 'I was a true tomboy, and wanted to be like my big brother Cary. Whenever I did finally grow my hair, I wanted a crew cut like his!"
The treatments were difficult – but successful. Meredith entered remission in October of 1986. She continued a course of chemotherapy and radiation for the next two and one-half years, cementing a close relationship with the staff at St. Jude.
"I loved it there. Everyone was so wonderful. From the very beginning, they reassured my parents that they were going to treat me and I was going to make it."
She went on to enjoy an active childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, graduating from Winnsboro High School, where she served as a cheerleader, in 2002, and Louisiana Tech University in 2007.
Throughout her childhood and young adulthood, she has maintained her relationship with St. Jude – making regular visits for check-ups, studies and Survivors Day celebrations until she was officially "released" at age 20.
"I was actually depressed when I was released," Meredith said. "I love that place. I love the people there."
There are some sad memories – friends made, then lost during the years of treatment.
"At age three, I lost my first 'best friend' at St. Jude," Meredith said. An older boy of 13, the two bald-headed kids bonded during treatment. Other memories are happier – friends made, victories shared. Her experiences include meeting the late Danny Thomas, founder of St. Jude, and his daughter, Marlo Thomas.
She is also thankful for the love and support of family, friends and the entire community of Wisner and Franklin Parish.
"People here at home have been wonderful to my family," Meredith said. Friends, churches, even strangers sent gifts, food, money, cards to encourage them during her years of treatment. "I loved getting mail when I was in the hospital."
Meredith has continued to participate in studies at St. Jude on a volunteer basis, allowing researchers to use her case history to improve treatment for current and future patients. For example, as a result of her illness and subsequent treatment, her bones fused early and her growth was affected. At 4'9", it's something she deals with every day.
"I wonder, sometimes, how tall I would have been," she laughs.
Other studies look into the effect of treatment on patients' hearts, eyes, reflexes and other areas.
She and her mom, whom she describes as her best friend, enjoy the trips back to Memphis, visiting with old friends -- from the nursing staff to gift shop workers. They also have frequent opportunities to share their story with other young patients and parents, offering encouragement and hope to those walking a similar path.
It's always been a dream of Meredith's to work at St. Jude one day, and her degree is in family and child studies with a concentration in child life. She currently puts that education to work as a victim advocate for Wellspring, working with children and women who are victims of domestic violence.
"As I've gotten older, I recognize what a miracle I've experienced," Meredith said, "and I'm thankful. It's made me more mature, in a lot of ways, and given me so much respect and love for my parents and deepened my faith in God."
"I feel like I am a miracle – my life is a miracle. Who knows what God has in store for my future?" she said. "I still have hopes and dreams to fulfill."
The mission of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital is to advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. Consistent with the vision of our founder, Danny Thomas, no child is denied treatment based on race, religion or a family's ability to pay.