A 10-year-old girl takes on cancer: ‘You just gotta do it.’
If anyone can see the light on Miserable Monday, it’s Olivia Reardon.
That’s what Olivia and her parents have named the day she reports for chemo at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. Halfway through treatments that span 66 weeks, there are far too many Miserable Mondays in the life of a 10-year-old cancer patient and fighter.
“I cry every Monday,” Olivia says. “But you just gotta do it.”
Her mom, Christie Meyers, echoes the sentiment. “You just gotta do it. You’re beating it, right?”
There are tears, then a routine she’s come up with to help her rise above the day. Olivia takes a few deep breaths. Then she counts down to when the nurse sticks a needle into a port beneath the skin on the left side of her chest to access a catheter. Numbing cream helps, a little.
At that point, Olivia settles into the infusion room, sometimes for the entire day, while the chemo works to defeat the cancerous tumor pressing against the base of her skull.
She’ll work on arts and crafts, talk with other kids in the room, tinker with her tablet and play board games with her father, Kevin Reardon. Connect 4 and Guess Who? are favorites. Father and daughter like to order in. Olivia favors vanilla milkshakes from Shake Shack. “We’ve become good friends with DoorDash,” Reardon says.
In a typical month, Olivia spends all or part of six days at the Affiliate Clinic across from Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center near uptown Charlotte. By the time they hit Monroe Road for the ride home to Matthews, Olivia is usually asleep.
Such is Miserable Monday for a girl who could teach us all a thing or two about resilience. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. It’s an honor to introduce you to Olivia Reardon.
‘I’m going to kick cancer’s butt’
From birth, life has presented challenges.
Olivia was born 10 1/2 weeks early. She was just over a month old when she had her first surgery for a congenital heart defect called a double aortic arch. She had her second surgery when she was six. The heart condition has been repaired and is not related to the cancer.
From age six to nine, she was able to focus on kid stuff. Gymnastics, dance, cheerleading. Romping with her puppies. Playing and occasionally fussing with her sisters, Bradleigh, 7, and Natalie, 14. Bradleigh has that kid-sister gift for yanking Olivia’s chain and immediately pleading, “I was just joking.”
Then, in November 2021, a rare soft tissue cancer was found in Olivia’s nasal cavity area, around one eye socket. This type of cancer can spread, most commonly to the bones, bone marrow, lungs and brain. Luckily, Olivia’s cancer did not spread. It is difficult to treat due to the location and type of cancer, known as alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma.
On Dec. 6, 2021, surgeons removed about half the tumor. A second surgery a week later took out the rest of what surgeons could remove safely. Last March, Olivia’s treatment took her to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, where she spent seven weeks receiving 28 proton radiation treatments. She is also enrolled in a national research study involving St. Jude and other cancer centers working toward the most effective treatment.
The St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant’s Hemby Children’s Hospital is one of eight clinics nationwide affiliated with the famed St. Jude hospital in Memphis, and the only one in the Carolinas.
In Memphis, Olivia became a Pied Piper to some of the younger patients being treated for cancer and other catastrophic diseases. There, and now back home, she is as upbeat as she can be, forever brave and deeply engaged in this journey.
“She’s definitely older than her years,” said her primary oncologist, Dr. Joanne McManaman. “She understands everything that is going on. She wants to understand it.” At first, Olivia, like so many cancer patients of all ages asked “Why me?” And now? McManaman is proud to speak for her patient: “I’m going to kick cancer’s butt.”
‘Her true, authentic self’
Kicking cancer’s butt takes several forms.
There’s Olivia’s Miserable Monday routine, deep breaths and a countdown.
There’s facing up to what is going on. Olivia’s mother, Christie Meyers, says they are trying to be as transparent as possible with their children, and with the community following Olivia’s story on social media. When Olivia first began chemo, they posted a photograph of Olivia at home, holding a bucket in case she needs to throw up.
“We want to portray her true, authentic self,” Meyers said. “This is not always happy, smiling faces.”
Then there’s the generosity of the family foundation.
Olivia’s parents established the OliviaStrong Foundation to raise awareness of childhood cancer, raise funds to help families facing this challenge and, ultimately, find a cure. Read all about it at OliviaStrongFoundation.org. Savor the photos of Olivia on Facebook and Instagram, including from the evening celebrating the foundation’s $500,000 gift to Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. As great as the 24th annual Hemby Golf Classic at Carmel Country Club was, it couldn’t top the program that followed.
Surrounded by golfers and members of the Novant Health family, Olivia and her family presented the check – a very large protype of the check – to help support Hemby Children’s Hospital’s talented physicians, child life specialists, nurses and other team members who are improving outcomes for all kids, especially kids like Olivia.
“I’m so lucky to be a part of the Novant Health family,” Olivia said in a news release. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. All of the doctors, nurses and staff have always taken good care of me. It’s been a lot of fun giving back through our foundation so far. I want to use this special birthday donation to help pay it forward.”
Olivia turned 10 on Aug. 4. That’s the day she made her first significant gift from the foundation, $50,000 to St. Jude in Memphis for solid tumor research. A week later, $15,000 went to Make-A-Wish Central & Western North Carolina. Then $500,000 to Novant Health. “Since the first donation happened on her birthday, we’ve been saying this series of gifts is a birthday gift back to the places that have been a big part of her life,” Meyers said.
“While still in the midst of treatment, she is busy finding new ways to encourage others going through similar challenges,” Katie Spizzirri, chief philanthropy officer of the Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center Foundation, said in the news release. “At 10 years old, she’s providing a gift that will help others for years to come.”
Spizzirri spoke of Olivia’s selflessness. So does her dad. “Oh gosh,” Reardon says, “she’s the most selfless person I ever met. It’s never about her.”
Back to school
A lot of ground is covered as Olivia sits cross-legged on an examining table, taking chemo and surfing YouTube for videos while answering a writer’s questions.
She started fifth grade at Indian Trail Elementary School on Aug. 29. The staff there has been wonderful about building a flexible plan that allows Olivia to learn virtually and come in to visit classmates when she can.
She loves playing with her mini-goldendoodles, Amelia and Wish. Wish was paid for by a stranger at a Make-A-Wish benefit auction. Olivia says having two dogs, one black and one white, is fun. “Now we need a red one,” she adds, looking at her mom.
Olivia has an eclectic palate. When chemo started, she craved spicy food. When radiation started and she developed mouth sores, she reverted to her normal fare, including sushi, mashed potatoes and steak.
After all the needles, Olivia doesn’t want to be a doctor or a nurse. “I don’t want to see other kids go through that.” A radiation technician is a different story, she says. “You don’t have to be the one to hurt them.”
‘She keeps us strong’
When is a child not a child?
There are moments when Olivia seems like she is 10. But then her mom talks about the online messages they receive from people who want to share their life struggles, not just cancer. Her story moves them. Photographs of her strike at the heart. Olivia on the edge of her bed, bucket in hand, a look of anguish on her face. Olivia, they say, helps them find strength for whatever comes.
“It’s hard as a mom to watch your baby go through this stuff,” Meyers said. “You feel helpless. But she has shown us how much of a fighter she is. She keeps us going. She keeps us strong.”
When is a child not a child?
When through her cancer she finds her calling.
The chemo flowing, Olivia puts down YouTube for a moment.
“It makes me feel happy that I can help other kids,” she says. “I help a lot of adults, too.”
‘Ringing in joy after 66 weeks of chemo’
On April 3, 2023, Olivia Reardon rang the bell, signaling three magical words. End. Of. Treatment.
After 66 consecutive Miserable Mondays, as she came to call her weekly sessions, the 10-year-old from Matthews was done with chemo. Scans show no evidence of the cancerous tumor pressing against the base of her skull.
With a head full of hair again, Olivia sent a joyful clang echoing through the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. Physicians, nurses, other staff and relatives launched confetti. Her parents, Kevin Reardon and Christie Meyers, each rang the bell and hugged Olivia for the zillionth time since she was diagnosed with cancer in November 2021.
When the last clang sounded, the family presented a $100,000 check to the Novant Health Foundation for the expansion of Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. The gift is part of a $500,000 commitment from the OliviaStrong Foundation (osfgiving.org), formed to raise awareness of childhood cancer, support other families and find a cure.
There in the midst of all this hubbub was a little girl whose smile spoke volumes.
“Those ICEEs from Circle K helped make Miserable Mondays a tad less miserable. But honestly I can live without them,” Olivia said with a smile.
So, she’ll come back to the clinic every three months for a scan. And the occasional hug for everyone who took such good care of her.
And it’s clear she’ll be the happiest fifth-grader at Indian Trail Elementary School when Mondays roll around, and she can simply take her seat in class like everyone else.
Leave it to Mom to sum it all up.
“She’s a happy, normal kid,” Christie says. “Happy. Healthy.”