Not many 18-year-olds can battle cancer with a smile, but that’s what Maryann Newcomb has been doing for the past few months. A recent State College Area High School graduate, Newcomb was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in January.
The community has rallied behind Newcomb, starting with a Driving 4 Diamonds Buick Blitz and Fun Fair event held April 1, which was organized by the State College Mini-Thon committee and student council. On Saturday, the National Honor Society at State High hosted the Bunny Hop 5K at Circleville Park in her honor, with the proceeds going toward the Four Diamonds Fund, which helps benefit children and families affected by pediatric cancer.
“We wanted to do a main service project,” said Cole Buchart, the president of the National Honor Society. “Maryann was diagnosed, and she is part of the club, so she inspired us to do the run.”
Almost 400 people participated in the event, with community support so overwhelming that organizers needed to turn people away due to a lack of parking and maximum park occupancy.
“We’re very touched. It’s very special that she’s in the National Honor Society and that they selected to honor her with this event,” said Celeste Newcomb, Maryann’s mother.
Students, teachers and members from all over the community came to show their support.
“(The run) was awesome, there were lots of positive cheers and bunny ears,” said Penn State senior Alanna Kaiser. “It’s great to see this side of the community. State College is special.”
During a ski trip in January, Newcomb noticed red dots along her ankles but assumed the dots were caused by tight ski boots. After a few hours, the dots showed up all over her body. Her father, an emergency room doctor, recognized that there was a problem.
The symptom was also paired with lower rib pain, which Newcomb had been experiencing earlier that week. The Newcombs went to the ER during the ski trip, but it was not until they went to Penn State Hershey Medical Center that they received the diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia. ALL, Celeste Newcomb said, is the most common childhood cancer and affects the white blood cells (lymphocytes), which are made in the bone marrow and are part of the immune system. ALL has a cure rate of 90 percent, but still requires rigorous therapy.
“I remember saying, ‘this can’t be happening, I’m going to Costa Rica in two weeks,’ ” Maryann Newcomb said.
When diagnosed, 80 percent of Newcomb’s cells were leukemic, showing the aggressiveness of the cancer.
“Had I not gotten treated, I would have lived less than a month,” Newcomb said. She receives chemotherapy once a week and will continue the treatment for the next eight months. After that, she’ll receive chemo once a month for two years.
Newcomb graduated in late January, having been a member of the State High National Honor Society and a member of Interact Club. She applied to the AFS Speedwell Foundation for the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica this spring, but her January trip to the emergency room changed those plans.
The diagnosis changed “pretty much everything,” Newcomb said. She has had frequent trips to Mount Nittany Medical Center and Hershey. When she is at home, she often cannot see her friends due her white blood cell count being too low low, making her vulnerable to infection.
“It’s confinement,” Newcomb said “I’m sick all the time. It’s not a comfortable lifestyle.”
But what she has gained over the past months is an appreciation for each and every day.
“I’ve felt grateful for every day now more than I used to be,” she said. “You don’t expect it. The worst I’d ever had before this was broken bones. It just comes out of nowhere, and it was just crazy.”
Throughout the process of fighting cancer, Newcomb’s positivity has inspired her peers and teachers alike, bringing the community together for a common cause.
“(She’s a) lovely kid. She’s the toughest kid I know and can do it with a smile. We need more like her,” State High teacher Andy Merritt said.
For Newcomb, the only option is to remain positive and fight with a smile.
“Going through this, it sucks, it’s awful, it’s terrible,” she said. “But you can’t be negative because that will only make it worse. I have the choice to be negative, at first I was almost trying to deny that I had it. Then I accepted it, and it was almost easier to be happier. The chemo is destroying my body, and I don’t want my mind to as well. There’s a finish line.”
Josie Krieger is a student at State College Area High School.