Stephanie Cannon '06 May 28, 2015 3:39 PM updated: June 25, 2015 1:49 PM
By Roberto M. Molar Candanosa '13
Addison Marshall ’16 went into the Clayton W. Williams, Jr. Alumni Center on April 17, 2015, to get his Aggie Ring—just like the other more than 3,000 Aggies receiving their Ring that day. In a small conference room, he sat back on a chair and admired the Ring he just put on. He smiled, relaxed and serene.
Marshall wore a maroon and white, short-sleeved polo, making it difficult to not notice his left arm. It was covered almost completely with tattoos, all of them with a special meaning.
There’s one with two roses and a watch by his bicep. The two roses represent, he says, the 50:50 chance of life or death he was given upon his relapse. And the watch is set to the date and time of his first diagnosis. Wrapping the roses and watch is a string of beads. Those represent a program called beads for courage that includes a bead for every procedure he endured while in treatment. The tattoo is not so long, but the real string extends for about 30 feet. On his forearm, a big compass tattoo signifies is intention to never stay stagnant in life. A fleur-de-lis is also there because he is originally from New Orleans, and it is maroon because he is an Aggie. Then he casually lifted up his shirt, uncovering an image of a number with a line striking through it. That is his medical record number, the first thing he tattooed after his treatment.
In the spring of 2009, Marshall’s freshman high school year, he felt a strange pain in his ribs. He thought he might have broken a rib playing football. But when he went for X-rays, results showed no fractures. A week or two passed, and he was still feeling pain. And now he also felt drowsy. His mom went with him to the hospital. “When we were in the ER, they kept saying he had abnormally high white blood cells,” said his mother, Valerie. “That’s code for leukemia.”
Further analysis showed Marshall’s pain was due to an enlarged spleen, which was filling up with leukemia cells. He was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, an aggressive form of cancer that leads to excessive and uncontrollable production of white blood cells in the bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside some of our bones. An overload of leukemia cells crowds out other cells in the bloodstream—like red blood cells, which transport oxygen throughout the body. Too many leukemia cells also means fatigue, bruises, and easy infections.
The day after being diagnosed, Marshall was already signing paperwork to begin chemotherapy at MD Anderson Cancer Center. “It wasn’t fun,” Marshall said, “it was every week going in and getting treatments.” He also continued working out at the gym and training football. The only day he didn’t work out was when he went in for treatment.
Often, Marshall could be heard say, “cancer is not the boss of me.” His spirit to beat leukemia was irrepressible, something everyone around him could see. His football coach, for example, nominated Marshall for the 2011 Inspireum Award, a recognition to the most inspirational high school football player in the country. No one in Marshall’s family knew about that. “I got a call one night saying, ‘we want to congratulate you on winning,’” he said. “I was just dumbfounded.”
Unfortunately, Marshall relapsed two years after his initial diagnosis. The cancer was now in his brain and spine, and this time it was much worse. Oncologists gave his mom two options: Either she could protect him and not let him do anything, or she could let him continue with his normal life. She chose the second. “As a mom you want to say ‘stay home tonight and watch TV,’” Val said “but he would be out running track and throwing up and working along all of that.”
But how did a teenager diagnosed with an aggressive type of leukemia do that? Marshall said his total lifestyle change helped him endure through his disease. That meant following a really healthy diet and lots of exercise. It was his own way of coping with disease. “Something I still had control of,” he said.
It also helped that Marshall’s relationships with friends and family solidified. “The school and the whole community was bonded around me,” he said. For example, a small candy shop near his house organized blood drives and fundraisers for him. “And they barely knew us,” said Val, “but they became our family.”
Life is different, in every sense now, six years from Marshall’s first diagnosis. “It all just gave me a new outlook,” he said. “There are just so many things in life more important than going out and having fun on a Friday night.” At Texas A&M, for example, his perspectives often make him slow down and realize “maybe that test next week isn’t always the most important thing in the world.”
Marshall, who began school at Texas A&M in 2012, works as a physical therapy technician and plans to be a physician assistant in pediatric oncology. “I feel I could really resonate with the patients, coming from the same frame of mind they would be in.”
He is set to graduate with a B.S. in kinesiology in May 2016. “And with a 4.0.,” Val said proudly, remembering oncologists’ warnings about possible cognitive effects due to radiation therapy to Marshall’s brain. That excellence earned him an Aggie Ring Scholarship, awarded by Jon ’68 and Johnette ’70 Jarvis for his outstanding intellectual and personal characteristics.
Marshall has shown no signs of cancer ever since his treatment ended in the summer of 2011. He says he doesn’t think much about his past, but sometimes random things—like a memory, smell, or anecdote—trigger his mind. For example, things like a little cold sometimes make him wonder whether he is beginning to relapse. But, he says, he always focuses on the positives of life. “I think about the great things and the worst case scenarios, and this is not the end of the world,” he said with a smile.
As Marshall left the Alumni Center, he kept looking back at his new Aggie Ring. “I can’t stop looking at it,” he said. It signifies his journey at Texas A&M and everything he learned along the way. “You come in not really knowing much, but there are so many life and academic lessons you learn while you are here.” Val, always at his side, added: “It’s incredible. Not so long ago I never thought this day was possible.”