By Mary Murray
The summer of 2017 was full of concerts, college softball showcases and all around fun for soon-to-be 16-year-old Swedesboro, N.J., native Abby Fox.
As Fox was gearing up for the beginning of her sophomore year at Kingsway Regional High School, she began to feel constantly fatigued and found random bruises on her body. She knew that something was wrong, but had no idea what.
On Sept. 29, 2016, Fox was diagnosed with Severe Aplastic Anemia. This disease affects how bone marrow produces white and red blood cells and platelets, ultimately resulting in a compromised immune system. Fox was at risk of getting very sick if she was not given blood product transfusions regularly.
She was in and out of the hospital for months and received immunosuppressive therapy, a treatment that was meant to destroy the immune system in hopes that a new one could build itself. After waiting for months and making the determination that the treatment had failed, Fox was told that she would need a bone marrow transplant. She spent five weeks in the hospital receiving chemotherapy and radiation in preparation for the transplant.
The summer after her transplant, Fox was introduced to the HEADstrong Foundation when she met foundation president Cheryl Colleluori. Fox learned that HEADstrong was having a lacrosse tournament that fall and that they were looking for a cancer patient to honor. She agreed, and when asked about it, Fox said, “It was such an empowering experience, feeling like all of these girls were supporting me after everything I had been through. That’s what I love about HEADstrong. They are an amazing foundation, and if I got the chance to volunteer for them again, I would say yes in a heartbeat.”
Colleluori said that Fox’s story really hit home with her when she found out that Fox was one of her neighbors. She had met Fox at the local pool and knew that she had undergone chemotherapy, and the two had a conversation that led to Fox opening up about her story.
“I really appreciated her spunk, and it was a privilege to help Abby,” Colleluori said. “She has a bright future ahead of her.”
Colleluori made the decision to honor Fox at the HEADstrong Fall Classic. She knew that the assembled female athletes could really resonate with Fox’s story, and also that Fox’s journey as an athlete who was fighting for her life with this disease aligned with HEADstrong’s mission.
“Since I was still bald and my hair was slowly growing back, I was nervous to be around so many people, thinking they may judge me, but it was the complete opposite of that,” Fox said. “After one of the games, they called all of the teams together. They then announced who I was, what I’d been going through and gave me a couple of gifts, including a check for $2,000, which I’m putting toward college. It was a very empowering experience.”
After fighting her battle with aplastic anemia, Fox will never forget when she was allowed to get back on a softball field.
“In the hospital, I got really depressed and upset that I couldn’t even go to a game to watch, I just had to sit in my bubble and avoid germs,” Fox said. “When I first stepped foot on a softball field after everything I went through, you have no idea the amount of immense joy that radiated throughout my entire body. The feeling of the dirt crunching underneath my cleats, the smell of the grass and the sun on my face made me feel whole again. I can just remember feeling so happy that I was back to normal doing what I loved most.”
Now, Fox is in the final stretch of her senior year of high school and getting ready to head to Ramapo College of New Jersey in the fall, where she will play softball. Instead of having to go to an outpatient oncology clinic two to three times a week as she once did, Fox now only needs to get blood work done and to meet with her doctors every six months.
Fox chose to become a nursing major because of her own personal experience, saying, “I want to be like all the amazing nurses that cared for me throughout my many hospital visits.”
April 21 marked Fox’s two-year “re-birthday,” which celebrates the day she was given her bone marrow transplant.
“Looking back on that day, I can remember how scared I was and how I thought nothing would ever get any better,” she said. “It’s crazy to think how much things can change in two years. It’s my senior year, I’m having fun with my friends, I just got back from my senior trip to Disney and graduation is getting closer every day.
“I remember thinking that I would never get to this point in my life and wondering if I would even make it to graduating high school. I’m blessed with the best support system who have helped me get to this two-year mark. I’m so grateful for this new start I was given.”
When asked to reflect upon what she learned throughout her winding journey, Fox replied, “You need to live in the moment, and not take for granted those who are there to help you. You never know what life has up its sleeve, and everything can change in an instant. My journey started with only a few bumps and bruises and turned into a life-threatening illness.
“I’m so happy to say that I beat aplastic anemia and can move on with my life to become the best version of myself that I can possibly be.”