Martin Townsend had just gotten his first taste of independence. He had enjoyed his freshman year at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and was back on campus for his sophomore year.
But he didn’t feel well. Random fevers and exhaustion were sapping his strength. He pushed past his symptoms for a while, but eventually went to the doctor, and in March 2011, he was diagnosed with biphenotypic leukemia, a rare cancer that combines features of other leukemia types. He would have to leave school and start treatment for cancer.
He spent the next three and a half years in and out of the hospital, with chemotherapy, steroids, and surgery. By 2014 his remission seemed solid, but in 2015 his blood work showed that the leukemia had returned. This time he underwent immunotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant.
Today, he is feeling well and regaining strength. Now 25, he can look back at the illness that halted his college career and see how it has shaped his character.
“I was 19 when I was diagnosed, at a point in my life where I was just beginning to figure things out,” Martin says. “To have that foundation flipped upside-down gives you a perspective that not every young adult is going to have. Not everyone has to face their own mortality or give up their independence.”
He was never alone through his illness; his mother, Virgie Townsend, stepped in as his primary caregiver.
“My mom is the type of mom who will be there in every way she can, and then some,” Martin says with a laugh. “I can only imagine how horrifying it would be to hear that your child has a life-threatening illness.”
Throughout this voyage their relationship shifted multiple times, from independence to reliance and back.
Their shared experience has catalyzed both Martin and Virgie to advocate for cancer patients.