Standing strong

By Donna Lampkin Stephens

Probably more than most of us, Briley Waddill of Searcy is looking forward to an uneventful school year.

She hasn’t had many of those lately.

Waddill, 18, a May graduate of Harding Academy who is headed to Harding University to study business, had her eighth-grade experience interrupted by cancer. During her treatment, she spent her freshman year keeping up with her studies from home, returning to campus as a sophomore.

Her junior year was marred by COVID-19. Her senior year, too, was marked by the pandemic’s aftermath.

Photo courtesy of Kim Boyd at Zoe photography

“I think it’s going to be cool,” she said of the immediate future. “It’s going to be nice to get out and do stuff that’s normal and be able to fully participate in things I’ve always wanted to do.”

After all she’s been through, she deserves the opportunity.

While running track for the junior high Wildcats in the spring of 2017, she noticed a painful bump beneath her left knee.

“It gradually got bigger and more painful,” she said. “After about two weeks, we went to the doctor, and then we hopped around from doctor to doctor. Several were saying it was something not concerning at all. It was probably about a month before I got a diagnosis.

That diagnosis was osteosarcoma — a type of bone cancer that begins in the cells that form bones.

According to, osteosarcoma, which typically occurs in teens and young adults, is most often found in the long bones.

Waddill underwent three kinds of chemotherapy, often requiring stays at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. After the six months of chemo, she had an eight-hour surgery for a full knee and partial tibia replacement. After that, she was stuck in a straight leg brace and couldn’t bend the knee for six weeks, which led to muscle atrophy and having to learn to walk again.

But with the help of a physical therapist, she has gone from 30 degrees range of motion to 130.

“I’m almost fully recovered,” she said. “I don’t have a noticeable limp — they told me I would — so that’s good.”

Betsy Dawson of Little Rock, a friend of Waddill’s aunt, provided local support during the Little Rock hospital stays.

“It was an opportunity for my son at a really young age to see someone going through something his little brain couldn’t comprehend, but he knew it was bad, and he saw her go through it with a smile on her face,” Dawson said. “I was there a lot through some of the not-so-good days, but from my vantage point, she always had a positive attitude and was an example of resilience to my young son that has stuck with him.

“He got to see someone suffer well. It impacted him. I’m thankful for those experiences. She taught me a lot about bravery and courage and facing things with a positive attitude that I don’t know that I would’ve had.”

During the treatment and recovery, Waddill became an online student long before the rest of the world.

“It was the start of the fourth quarter (of eighth grade), and I started ninth grade completely at my own pace,” she said. “I ended up finishing the majority of that (schoolwork) the summer before heading back to school to start 10th grade.”

Making her situation more complicated was the fact that she’d been at Harding Academy less than a year before her diagnosis, having moved with her family from Houston, Texas.

“The smaller school did a good job sending me cards, and all the girls in my grade came to see me on a bus on my birthday,” she said. “On my weeks off from treatment when I was home, I had to be careful, but I could see people as long as they weren’t sick.

“I had left Houston, the only place I’d known, and come to a small town I didn’t think I’d like. But having that kind of support was nothing I would’ve ever had in Houston. The timing turned out to be perfect.”

Afterward, her athletic career was over, but that was OK, too.

“I did sports, but I was never a die-hard athlete,” she said.

She turned instead to chorus, musicals, and smaller ensembles — unsurprising since her parents, Doug and Rochelle Waddill, were music majors at Harding University.

“Those were really good,” she said. “I’d always been in chorus in elementary, but I never thought I would do it long-term. But I enjoyed it. I’m hoping to be in chorus at Harding.”

Plans are for her business major to help toward her goal of a career in business law.

Based on her experiences, what advice does she have for other 501 youth?

“Learn to appreciate every moment you’re given because you never know when it could be taken away,” she said. “Especially with last year and COVID, I’m sure everyone has seen the truth of this mentality, but I still have to remind myself of it sometimes. It’s all too easy to get wrapped in your own head, but it’s so necessary to take a step back to appreciate where we are, what we have, and how far we’ve come.”

That’s good advice for all of us.

Donna Stephens
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