Young cancer survivor taking ‘Relay’ to heart

Bryce Forbes

Four years after a battle with cancer, all Madisyn DeGagne has to show for it is a scar, a few Team Canada souvenirs, more than 400 cards of support, and one story that everyone wants to hear.
“Every time someone sees [the scar] that didn’t know before, I have to tell the story over and over again,” said the 12-year-old, who currently is raising money for this year’s “Relay for Life” coming up June 25-26 at Fort Frances High School.
“When she’s out fundraising for the ‘Relay,’ it takes her about half an hour at a house because she will say, ‘My name is Madisyn DeGagne, I’m a cancer survivor. . .,” noted her mother, Wendy.
“She has this spiel and they want to know the whole story,” she added.
But the Grade 7 student at St. Francis School never gets nervous telling her tale, and joked that she “has it down pat.”
Her story began in December, 2005 as an eight-year-old when she went to the hospital complaining of stomach pain.
Speculating it was appendicitis, she was sent home after a night of observation. But on Jan. 8, 2006, she was back in the hospital and Dr. Cam Moorhouse noticed the football-sized mass growing in her stomach.
“We always just thought she had a little belly,” her mom joked.
The youngster was in a Winnipeg hospital the following day, where doctors discovered it was a teratoma that had been growing since birth.
An immature teratoma occurs when an identical twin re-absorbs the other embryo and can cause a cancerous mass.
She went into surgery the same day and, after 36 stitches, she was back home.
“She never stopped because to her, it was honestly just a rock,” her mom recalled.
“She was supposed to be in the hospital for a week. [The surgery] was a Thursday and 26 hours later, she was out.”
Madisyn never had to undergo chemotherapy because the doctors believed the mass was well-contained and hadn’t spread. But she continues to see a doctor once a year to ensure she still is cancer-free.
After participating in the local “Relay for Life” for the last four years, Madisyn is now leading her own team, named “Pink Attitude: The Next Generation.”
The night of the relay (June 25) might be the only time Wendy DeGagne will be proud of her daughter for breaking curfew.
In the past, under the tutelage of a team created by her aunt, Dawn Wood, Madisyn was allowed to stay until around 10 or 11 p.m. This year will be her first relay where she will make it right to 7 a.m.
Having already surpassed its $1,000 fundraising goal by $200, Madisyn tried to act as humble as possible by giving as much credit to her team when she mentioned the majority of the fundraising was done by her, bringing in around $800.
While she is a leader of nine other Grade 7 students, the youngster admitted she tries not to be “too bossy” of her friends.
“We have fun and come up with crazy ideas and see how they work,” she remarked.
As part of their theme, “Pirates of the Cure-a-bean: Quest for the Cure,” she said her team tried to come up with a pirate ship built from a golf cart, but it didn’t work out too well.
Instead, their campsite is going to be decorated with islands, palm trees, waves, a treasure box, and a ship, with pink being used prominently as a colour style.
“I feel more like a leader,” she noted. “I get to encourage my friends for them to get involved because I don’t think they would have at this time of their lives.”
Her advice to her teammates was: “Have fun, and don’t look at it as work but look at it as something that you want to do and they all really want to do this.”
“I’m very proud of her and the rest of the girls,” lauded Wendy DeGagne.
“When she said she wanted to put together a team, I was a little bit skeptical and I said to my sister, ‘I don’t know if they are actually going to make it to the 25th.’
“The initiative is there,” she stressed. “[So] we really sat back and they started having their meetings once a week.
“We just let them to their own thing up until [last Wednesday], when we had to do the paints and cut-outs for their theme.”
For their first meeting, DeGagne said her daughter had created a newsletter about what the night would entail, as well as a PowerPoint presentation featuring past versions of the “Relay for Life.”
“I’m more aware of what happens in other people’s lives as they go through it,” Madisyn remarked. “I think I try to get involved more than I would have had I never had the experience.
“I talk to my friends and teachers, and all want to know about it.”
Madisyn also will be participating in the Survivors’ Dinner before the “Relay,” and then the Survivors’ Victory Lap to kick it off.
“I think it’s emotional to see how many people in our community have been affected by [cancer],” she said of the Survivors’ Lap.
“It’s kind of like it’s from a movie,” she described. “There is that music and they do close-ups of people crying, it makes me think of that, like tears of joy, though.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking,” she added.
The youngster also will give a speech at the opening ceremonies, and was offered a position on the planning committee for next year’s event.
Meanwhile, four years after her cancer ordeal, Madisyn felt it made her a better person.
“I think I’m a more positive person because I know there will always be obstacles in your life, and you can persevere and put a lot of effort and just believe in yourself, you can make it over them,” she reasoned.
She also believes the cancer opened up a few doors for her that would not have been possible before, including becoming friends with Cheryl Pounder, a two-time Olympic gold-medalist with Canada women’s hockey team.
“After we found out she had this mass, [a family friend] talked to Cheryl . . . and when she got home from the hospital, she had two jerseys from the national team,” recalled Wendy DeGagne.
“From there it just snowballed.”
Madisyn introduced Pounder when she came to Fort Frances and spoke to a pair of schools, received a lifetime membership to Pounder’s hockey camp, and watched the 2007 women’s world hockey championship gold-medal game with Pounder’s family.
She holds the distinction of being the only person to wear Pounder’s gold medals in photographs.
“Cheryl takes pictures with people and her medals, but I was the only one who got to wear them,” Madisyn explained, who remains in contact with Pounder via e-mail.
“She said you have to understand the work behind it and she thought Madisyn could recognize with that,” added her mother.
Madisyn also was put in charge of protecting the gold medals one night in 2007 at a Red Lobster, and she admits the only thoughts going through her head was “Don’t drop them, don’t drop them.”
One of the jerseys Madisyn received from Pounder was a game-worn jersey from the 2006 Olympics. Madisyn wears it out for hockey practice, including her 12U ‘AAA’ Fighting Black Loons team out of Bemidji, Mn.
Her coach teased her about the jersey, joking they probably should burn it, the youngster recounted.
Her comeback: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the clanging of our gold medals.”
But through all of the trials and tribulations Madisyn has faced in her young life, she still is a 12-year-old kid who loves hockey, her horse “Dixie,” and her family, wishes to grow up to be a veterinarian, and hates cleaning her room.
“But I’m organized in other places, just not in my room,” she laughed.