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Teen battling cancer again takes time to boost others spirits
Hall 17-year-old designed plush duck to help fund cancer research
Monica Sandoval’s winning Aflac Holiday Duck design. - photo by Tom Reed | The Times

Monica Sandoval, 17, knew she had to keep a positive attitude if she was going to beat cancer for the second time.

The West Hall High School senior said one of her first experiences with the disease involved a child life specialist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite. The specialist told her that if she decided to just sit in bed all day she wasn’t going to get better, she was going to get sicker.

She took the specialist’s advice to heart and started encouraging other children in the hospital to do the same.

“My goal since that time has been to get kids out of their rooms so they aren’t sitting in bed being all ‘woe is me’ and just treating them normal,” Monica said.

During her time at the hospital, she’s hosted princess parties and a prom to give the other children something fun and “normal” to do. She even used her skill with makeup to transform the little boys into zombies “because almost every little boy thinks it’s cool.”  

In 2010, she started practicing taekwondo at her cousin’s studio to help her body recover from her treatments.

The day she discovered her cancer returned, Jan. 9, she immediately went to the studio and said she needed to test for her green belt. She wasn’t sure how long it would be before she would be healthy enough to test again. She passed and is preparing for her purple belt next, even though she’s sometimes tethered to an IV.

Monica said learning taekwondo has helped her handle the often overwhelming stress of being a teenager with cancer.

“The meditation was the biggest thing with my relapse because I knew how to relax myself. I could go to my room and get into meditation position if I was getting too stressed out or too overwhelmed,” Monica said.

When meditation, makeup and parties aren’t enough to pick up her spirits, she turns to her family.

Her two younger brothers, she said, are a source of constant entertainment and encouragement.

Her youngest brother, Cody Sandoval, 10, has even saved her life — twice.

Jeannie Sandoval, Cody and Monica’s mother, said her son, then 7, didn’t even hesitate when they explained how he could save his sister’s life by donating his bone marrow.

“He was just so excited that he could give sissy his blood,” Jeannie Sandoval said.

He was just as eager to help her for the second time in May, even though he knew how badly it was going to hurt.

Monica has always called Cody her “little present” because his birthday is just two days after her own. She said she never could have guessed he would give her the gift of life.

Though it’s a smaller gift, Monica is playing a big part in something that will help comfort and encourage children across the country.

Not long after being diagnosed for the second time, she and her mother were passing the time in her hospital room when the child life specialist stopped by with an activity.

She asked Monica to design a holiday duck for Aflac’s 2012 Holiday Duck design contest, open only to pediatric patients.

Monica quickly drew her design and ran down the hospital hallway to turn it in to the specialist.

A few months later, Monica found out that her duck design was chosen.

“For the last three years I’ve been given one of these ducks and now my duck is going to be the one that’s given to kids,” Monica said.

The ducks are sold in Macy’s stores and online at for $10 and $15 and proceeds go to fight children’s cancer.

“It’s amazing to think that a 10-minute drawing has turned into the biggest miracle for so many children, those we’ve met and those we’ve yet to meet. It’s amazing,” Jeannie Sandoval said.

Aflac is flying the Sandoval family to New York City to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — a family tradition previously viewed only on the television.

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