Former boxer Sydney Townsend enters the ring with her toughest opponent yet: cancer.
By Madelyn Geyer, Photos courtesy of Sydney Townsend
A terrified Sydney Townsend sits in a chilly hospital room waiting. Her diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in June 2018 wasn’t supposed to happen. She had just delivered her first child, a baby girl, months ago. She should be changing diapers, not scheduling rounds of chemotherapy. Uncertainty and disbelief replace the immense joy that should fill you after your child’s arrival. Her admittance to the hospital is so fast, she hasn’t had a chance to collect her belongings for the lengthy stay. Townsend doesn’t know who’s going to walk in the room. She has no idea that the next couple of years will test every ounce of her strength.
A compassionate oncologist, Dr. Kathryn Hudson, enters. She’s pregnant with her third child, and an instant understanding solidifies between the two women. Hudson draws up the battle plan, acutely aware of Townsend’s new role as a mother. They will fight this together no matter what it takes. “I knew that this treatment was going to be really difficult and that it would mean a lot of time away from her baby,” Hudson says. “It was all the more important that we treat her leukemia really aggressively and get her through it.”
In the Ring
Townsend begins chemotherapy with unimaginable resilience, engaging in “the most passive form of fight that you can imagine,” she says. Beeping monitors and the dull buzz of a busy hospital become the norm.
As a former boxer, she views the rounds of chemotherapy as rounds in the ring. Get through the first round, take a break. Get through the second round, take a break. “When you’re fighting in the ring, you’re gearing yourself up and you’re doing your stretches and you’re controlling your body and you’re directing your environment,” Townsend reflects. “One of the biggest things about cancer is you have to surrender control.” There’s no uppercut tough enough to extract the cancer from the bones and blood.
She aches for her daughter, Maxine, every day. Twenty fractured vertebrae due to a rare complication with the leukemia renders Townsend unable to walk or hold Maxine. Hudson helps Townsend and her family communicate with the hospital staff to allow Maxine in to see Townsend—with safety precautions. “For my patients who are mothers with small children, you need to find a way to make it work with still being a mom and being around your children,” Hudson says. “But chemotherapy is very immunosuppressive. We always worry about getting infections, especially from kids. But I believe you have to accept some amount of risk because the alternative, which is not being around your child at all, is not really acceptable.” She also consults with specialists to best address Townsend’s spine.
The Final Round
Townsend finally moves back home after six months of intense treatment. Her voice cracks with emotion recalling the first night she could fully be with Maxine. “I was in her nursery and my husband put her on my lap because at that point I still couldn’t even lift her, my back was still in such bad shape. I got to rock her to sleep, and I was just thinking, ‘This is what all of that was for.’”
Two years pass. In August 2020, the once terrified patient rings the bell (signaling cancer-free status) in a room no longer chilly with fear, but aglow with victory and healing. She walks toward a renewed life with Maxine and her family. Hudson feels the same renewal. “As an oncologist, I experience a lot of sad stories,” she says. “Sometimes it’s easy to get disheartened. To see a story like Sydney’s, it’s so meaningful to me. It reminds me [of]the impact that we can have and that patients can do really well even after such a hard period of such intensive chemotherapy. It’s really gratifying to me, and it reminds me why I do what I do.” The special maternal bond developed between Townsend and Hudson remains. In follow-up appointments, they share updates of their children’s milestones and the joy of Townsend’s health and progress.
Times of Incredible Strength
For many months after she was declared cancer free, Townsend thrust what she went through away. She winced at the thought of dealing with hospitals or health care again. Recently, she’s come full circle to embrace her experience as a strength and use it to help patients who are going through something similar. Starting in April 2021, Townsend looks forward to being the director of virtual care at Texas Oncology, the same place she spent months fighting for and winning back her future.
Townsend continues drawing strength from her ordeal. “At various points in this journey, I was diminished physically, mentally and just really vulnerable. I was ashamed of that,” she admits. “Dr. Hudson reminded me that I was accomplishing something. My treatment is one of the hardest out there, and I was making it through. Even when you feel your most vulnerable, those times are also times of strength.”