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How one teen's death sentence gave her the ultimate will to live

CanTEEN ambassador Maddy Ritchie's personal story is harrowing, but it will change your life.

By Anita Lyons

The end of high school should be a happy time. The high of graduation, schoolies and that epic freedom only leaving those hallowed halls can give you.

But for some teenagers, these happy times are a far cry from reality and in Maddy Ritchie's case, included a death sentence.

Maddy, who is now 20-years-old, was diagnosed with Stage IV Rhadbomyosarcoma Cancer at the age of 17 and was given a four per cent chance of living and just three months to live.

Now a youth ambassador for CanTEEN, she certainly has a story to tell.

In an exclusive chat with Now to Love, this brave girl from the Central Coast of Sydney, talks about how her death sentence gave her a purpose to live.

"I graduated from school in September in 2015 and two weeks later I found a small lump on my pelvis," Maddy recalled. "Within a week, it had doubled in size and the skin around it was going purple and yellow. I lost complete control of my bladder and bowel, kept collapsing and was out of breath."

"It was all pretty quick and within three days I was diagnosed [with Stage IV Rhadbomyosarcoma Cancer] and had to immediately start treatment."

Rhadbomyosarcoma Cancer is a rare, childhood cancer that has an unknown cause and gave Maddy an 18cm tumour in her pelvis and metastases, which is another growth from the tumour, on her left leg.

The tumour had been growing for between six to 12 months and she'd had no idea. Once discovered, it was so advanced that it was considered "almost terminal".

"It took my life away within three days," Maddy said. "I pretty much lost everything. I could not go out. I lived by my hospital stays and having the fall out of treatment."

As a diagnosis, Maddy received three months to live and was immediately admitted into Randwick Children's Hospital. From there, she was transferred to the John Hunter hospital in Newcastle which was easier for her to get to from her hometown of Terrigal.

"I started treatment straight away," Maddy recalls. "12 months of intense chemo therapy and six weeks of radio therapy."

Surprisingly, during this intense period of hospital stays, treatment and feeling sick all the time, Maddy never once believed she would actually die.

"The power of the mind is a really big thing for me and I will live the rest of my life truly believing that," she said. "I just did not think I was going to die. I did live each day, but at the same time I was scared that I wasn't going to wake up each day because of how bad it got."

While the time passed that she was given to live, the tumour began to shrink by more than half - something doctors had never seen before.

Maddy finished treatment in October 2016 - completely cancer free. While this is something to be celebrated in itself, there is still a very high chance of relapse especially within the first 12 months after stopping treatment.

"So if I was to relapse it would be terminal," Maddy said. "Because there would be nothing else that they could do, however, as of the 12 October, I will be two years' cancer free."

Facing such an ordeal through some of the best years of her life, Maddy knew that there was something "more to this".

"I thought, even if I was to live another six-12 months, this is my purpose and I'm going to do everything I can to make the most out of it," she said. "I'm going to do my best, I'm going to try and help others and raise awareness, I think that was really the catalyst for me to push on. I was like, 'this is not happening'."

Maddy was told that ultimately there was no reason for the cancer, it was just that her body "had turned against itself."

"I thought no, I'm going to un-turn myself," she said with a laugh.

Now, Maddy is a Youth Ambassador for CanTeen - an organisation that helps young people cope with having cancer themselves or cancer in their family.

Through CanTeen, people aged 12-25 learn to explore and deal with their feelings about the illness, connect with other young people in the same boat and if they've been diagnosed themselves, are provided with specialist, youth-specific treatment teams.

As an ambassador, Maddy hopes to raise awareness and help others going through a difficult time, just like she did. But she also wants to live through the people who weren't lucky enough to survive.

"You have survivors' guilt," Maddy said. "Ultimately you feel bad, asking 'why did I live?' and 'why did they die?'," Maddy said. "It's ultimately asking the question, 'why?'

"It's just a feeling you have everyday where you're asking 'why', why was I chosen to live and why did they get taken?"

"I grew from going through the process, especially from doing something such as CanTeen's National Bandanna Day, I took it upon myself to make the guilt more of a 'I'm going to live for them'. I don't want to live in shame and do wrong by those who have passed before me. For me the guilt turned into a positive."

"After losing my friend in August last year, I went on to think, 'you know what, if it was me that had passed away, and someone else had gone on to live, I personally would want them to live their life the best that they can and give them the best opportunities' and so I thought, I am going to give the best in this life and bring awareness to cancer.

"No matter how many years I have left, I want to live a good life and live it for them."

Maddy is a Youth Ambassador for *CanTeen* and *National Bandanna Day*. *(Source: Supplied)*
Maddy is a Youth Ambassador for CanTeen and National Bandanna Day. (Source: Supplied)

How can you support CanTeen and National Bandanna day?

  1. CanTeen, a youth cancer charity, is asking Australians to show their support for young people affected by cancer through their annual event, National Bandanna Day. Held on Friday 26th October, National Bandanna Day is CanTeen's major fundraising and awareness campaign and has generated more than $30 million over the past 24 years to support young people going through a cancer experience.

National Bandanna Day is supported through an array of Australian schools, organisations, businesses and via the CanTeen website, where people can show their support by donating or purchasing a bandanna, with prices starting at $5. The funds raised will go towards helping young people explore and deal with their emotions about cancer, connect with peers in similar situations, attend online and face-to-face counselling and, if they've been diagnosed themselves, CanTeen provides specialist, youth-specific treatment teams.

You can buy a bandanna here!