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After brain cancer, Johnson High senior chooses career to help others
Maddie Williams
Maddie Williams, a Johnson High School graduate, will attend University of North Georgia. Williams, who plays piano religiously, was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 16 and her experience has inspired her to become a neurosurgeon. - photo by David Barnes

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

That’s what Maddie Williams’ mother, Jennifer, reminds her of on a regular basis. So that's how the she has lived her life since she was diagnosed with grade-3 anaplastic ependymoma, a malignant brain tumor about the size of a golf ball.

She was 16 when doctors found the tumor on March 19, 2016.

She had to go through brain surgery and proton radiation treatment. She lost a good bit of hair, missed school and stayed mostly inside her home or hospitals.

Despite all of that, she’s graduating from Johnson High School on time as an international baccalaureate student and has plans to become a neurosurgeon so she can help others.

She plans to complete her undergraduate degree at the University of North Georgia and move on to graduate school after that.

“I’ve met a lot of kids who have been diagnosed with a bunch of different types of brain tumors and brain cancers,” Maddie Williams said.

“And it’s kind of impacted me that I’m one of the few that are still capable of doing certain things. So I believe the reason I’m still mentally capable of becoming a doctor is because I’m supposed to use it to help other kids.”

Maddie Williams went to Da Vinci Academy at South Hall before she was diagnosed, and she was able to earn enough high school credit to put her already halfway through her sophomore year when she started at Johnson.

After she was diagnosed, she didn’t miss a beat when it came to school. While she was in Houston, Texas, for seven weeks receiving the radiation treatment, she continued to do as much school work as she could. Her teachers gave her the essential work and were patient as she completed it during the last months of her sophomore year.

Because she was already ahead, she only had to go to school for two hours each day during her junior and senior years. Her mother said that helped because that’s about all her brain could take.

Jennifer Williams had to comfort her daughter at times because life wasn’t the same. Maddie Williams still struggles with headaches, dizziness and fatigue.

“I would start to spiral and freak out because I was upset because I couldn’t remember what I was taught that day, and the homework looked foreign,” Maddie Williams said. “I kind of had to learn a new way to take notes, a new way to listen and all that so that I could retain more from the day.”

She laughs at the cancer now. Her family calls her brain the Death Star because of the “crater” that was left when the tumor was removed. Her friends call her Dory, like the forgetful fish from the movie “Finding Nemo,” because her short-term memory isn’t great. She goes about her day with her hair in a braid sometimes and treats the bald spot on top of her head as a “battle scar.”

“If I'm going to try my hardest to help kids who have gone through similar things, why would I try to cover it,” Maddie Williams said.

Through the treatment and side effects, Maddie Williams has volunteered at numerous Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation events. She’s helped raise more than $65,000 for the “world's largest nonprofit solely dedicated to the pediatric brain tumor community.”

“(Maddie) has always been more concerned about all the other kids around her who have brain cancer than she is about herself,” Jennifer Williams said. “It’s always ‘What can I do to keep someone else from having this?’”

She plays piano and guitar and has even written a song, “Superman,” she hopes will one day be produced to encourage and raise money for others struggling like her. She performed it at the foundation’s Starry Night 5K last fall.

Maddie Williams will have to get MRIs the rest of her life since there’s a 30 percent chance the cancer will come back. That doesn’t matter to her. She was able to join the competition cheer and golf teams again, she’s graduating high school on time and she’s determined to make it through college and become a neurosurgeon.

“The cancer is very aggressive,” Maddie Williams said. “But we were aggressive back.”

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