Haleigh Epperson: Beating Cancer Made Me Who I Am
Haleigh Epperson was too young to remember the day the lump suddenly appeared on her left arm.
She was five years old and jumping on the bed when her great-grandmother spotted it for the first time. That discovery would mark the last day of Haleigh’s bouncy, healthy childhood.
At the time, Haleigh’s mom and dad were at the hospital with Haleigh’s baby brother, who had a bad case of RSV and chicken pox. When they brought him home a week later, it was Haleigh who was in the hospital, facing a devastatingly grim prognosis after a biopsy revealed rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive and particularly cruel form of muscle cancer that afflicts mostly children.
“It was a very aggressive tumor. It appeared out of nowhere,” says Haleigh. “By the time we found it, the surgeon basically looked at my parents and was like, ‘There's no point. It's already going to spread.’ But my mom, being a bad ass and a nurse, was like, ‘No, we are not rolling over on this!’”
Haleigh spent the next year of her life camped out with her mom in room 901 at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem. She underwent a risky surgery to remove her cancerous left triceps and rewire the nerves in her arm and hand. The treatment included a grueling 56 weeks of chemotherapy and 36 days of radiation. Instead of playing with friends at recess in kindergarten and first grade, Haleigh turned hospital blankets into superhero capes and transformed her room into a make-believe nail salon and tattoo parlor for family, fellow patients, nurses and doctors. But on many days, Haleigh felt too crummy to even get out of bed.
The power of love and compassion
“My mom literally was by my side 24/7. I did not stay a day in the hospital without her there,” Haleigh says. “Cancer is hard on the patient. But I truly believe it’s even harder on the people who are around them and have to witness it, go through it, see the person that they love dealing with it and not being able to do anything.”
Haleigh says she got through the frightening episode thanks to love of family, the care of doctors and nurses, and the pure grit and stubbornness of childhood. Haleigh wasn’t going to let cancer be the boss of her. But coping with the disease and the aggressive clinical trials meant growing up fast and having a lot of “adult talk” conversations with her parents and caregivers.
“They were upfront with me about everything that was happening,” Haleigh says. “I think that really helped me to be able to communicate with my friends and talk about what happened to me.”
Haleigh learned that honesty and transparency lead to understanding and compassion. It became an effective way of dealing with childhood bullies after cancer treatment left her bald and scarred. She remembers how an honest talk with a schoolmate who called her a “bald-headed freak” disarmed a bully and led to a lasting relationship. “He still apologizes to me every time I post something [on social media] about being another year cancer-free,” says Haleigh, who will reach the milestone of 21 years cancer-free on April 29. “I appreciate it, because it matters to me that it still matters to him.”
Giving back to others
Today, as a marketing coordinator for Kontoor, Haleigh continues to approach each day as a gift from God, and every relationship an opportunity to form a meaningful connection with others.
“I just love building those connections,” she says. “I love people's stories and I love being able to talk to people.”
Outside of work, Haleigh spends countless hours visiting, counseling and befriending kids with cancer and other childhood illnesses, mostly through volunteer work at the Victory Junction children’s camp. When Kontoor recently held a rummage sale to raise money for Brenner Children’s Hospital, Haleigh immediately volunteered to help.
“Kontoor always does the right thing,” Haleigh said at the March 22 clothing sale. “They support everyone. They love everyone. They support their employees. Today matters because lives are being touched.”
While childhood cancer is unimaginably horrific, Haleigh says it has made her who she is today.
“God put me on this journey, and I would not take cancer away from my life for anything,” she says. “I would go through it all over again if it brought the people into my life that it has, because they've made me who I am.”