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Johnson High students, faculty show support for Maddie Williams, who has rare brain cancer
Maddie Williams smiles before an MRI at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Maddie Williams had a headache for a few weeks before she woke one morning vomiting.

Her mother, Jennifer Williams, knew something was wrong.

“I took her to the hospital that day because she had a headache and was throwing up,” Jennifer Williams said. “That’s when they did the MRI and saw the brain tumor.”

Maddie, 16, has grade-three anaplastic ependymoma, an uncommon type of brain cancer. The Flowery Branch resident is currently in Houston undergoing treatment at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

But back home, Maddie’s high school continues to support her. Johnson High School will observe worldwide Ependymoma Awareness Day with a balloon release Monday in Maddie’s honor.



Jennifer Williams rushed Maddie to the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Braselton on March 19 after Maddie complained slightly of a three-week headache.

The same day, an MRI indicated Maddie had a tumor on her brain.

Three days later, she had surgery to remove the tumor, leaving her with an incision across the back of her head. A week later, she was officially diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma.

“It’s a rare type of brain cancer,” Jennifer Williams said. “There are cells that line the fluid cavities in your brain and the spinal cord called ependymal cells. So this is a cancer of those cells.”

For a child Maddie’s age, there is an average of fewer than 55 cases of ependymoma per year.

Her treatment in Houston includes proton radiation, which differs from the more common photon radiation.

“It doesn’t spread out like photon radiation does,” Maddie said. “They wanted to do proton because the site where the tumor was is near some important parts of my brain. So they didn’t want the radiation to affect any of that.”

Maddie goes every morning, five days a week, for 30 minutes of radiation. She said a mask is placed over her head to keep her still and allow the radiation to go to the exact same spot each time.

Jennifer Williams said proton radiation is only offered in a few places across the country, including no hospitals in Atlanta. Maddie’s doctors at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta highly recommended it in her case.

Maddie’s tumor was in the left posterior parietal lobe, right behind the motor strip. Her mother said the location means radiation can affect strength, balance, dizziness, vision, hearing and more. Side effects aren’t permanent, but they can last up to a year after treatment is finished.

When she returns to school in the fall, she may struggle with concentration and learning new things.

But Maddie’s biggest struggles today are typical of cancer treatments, including loss of appetite, nausea and fatigue.

“She’s super positive, though,” Jennifer Williams said. “This kid is amazingly resilient, strong and positive.”


In the weeks since her diagnosis, Maddie received an outpouring of support from the community.

“It’s pretty surreal, and I wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “I don’t know everyone at my school personally. So I had a moment of, ‘Wow, everyone at my school is concerned and involved in this.’”

While still in Atlanta, her brother Bradley and friends visited with an enormous poster signed by Johnson students.

“It’s the size of one of those posters cheerleaders make for football,” Maddie said.

Jennifer Williams said she made T-shirts that read “UKnighted Against Brain Cancer” with a knight, the Johnson High mascot, in the background.

“Then on the back it says ‘Because Gray Matters for Maddie,’” she said. “Because gray matter is the brain.”

More than 330 shirts were pre-ordered, and the Williams family ordered 100 extras. They already need to place an order for more.

“It’s just amazing, the support,” she said. “When it’s someone else’s child, you see the support and that outpouring, you send money, you follow on Facebook and your heart breaks for the child and the family. But when it’s your child, it’s really unreal.”

Maddie’s received multiple cards while in Houston, including a bunch of handwritten notes bound on a keychain.

Early in her treatment, Maddie was having difficulty reading, she said. By the time she received the notes, she was just starting to read again.

“Being able to read those little notes that my friends and classmates sent to me was really moving,” she said.

Jennifer Williams said Maddie will have MRIs the rest of her life, and she called Maddie’s diagnosis “every parent’s nightmare.” But she hopes Maddie’s experience will be a word of warning to other parents to pay attention to possible symptoms.

Maddie said she is often asked how she stays strong and calm while undergoing treatment.

“You have to think about it one of two ways,” she said. “It would be natural to cry and to freak out because this isn't normal. But if you’re constantly mourning and depressed and thinking, ‘How can this happen to me?’ that is going to deteriorate your mental health along with your physical health and your drive to do daily activities.

“The other option is to mourn a healthy amount, but still look at it and say, ‘OK, this is what I have to do, this will hold it at bay. And when these seven weeks are over, I can go home and see my friends.’”

Maddie said her cancer is “definitely a fight,” but it’s one she will win.

“And when I win it, I want to help others win it, too,” she said. “I want to help them stay positive and win theirs.”