How a 10-year-old with cancer became the hero of her own story

Posted at 4:30 AM, Sep 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-04 08:43:25-04

MONROE, Ohio -- Ten-year-old Madison Smallwood's illness doesn't define her. She's an artist and a fighter who's determined to turn her experiences with osteosarcoma -- a bone cancer that can spread to the lungs -- into a into a story that helps other children living with pediatric cancers.

"She's probably one of the strongest people that I'll ever come across in my lifetime," her mother, Lori Smallwood, said. "Any kid that's going through cancer -- or sickness; it doesn't even have to be cancer -- they don't get to be a kid, and that's not fair to them."

Madison Smallwood was diagnosed with Stage 4 osteosarcoma at the age of 8, forcing her to go through 18 rounds of chemotherapy, two lung surgeries and a major leg surgery in the following year. Doctors announced in April 2016 that she was in remission -- and then in October of the same year that her cancer had returned. Through more rounds of chemotherapy, hair loss and surgery, Madison's mother said she found comfort in watching talk show host Ellen Degeneres on YouTube.

"I like watching her dance and play all the games," Madison said.

But the experience had still been hard for their entire family. That's why Sarah Curry Rathel, who comprises half of the local nonprofit Smile Books Project, wanted to do something special for Madison.

"She has so much to say and so many different things that kids and adults need to hear, especially for someone with pediatric cancer and what that's like for someone her age," she said.

Smile Books Project creates personalized books and coloring books for children dealing with long-term, life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. Part one of the process is straightforward: Interview the child about whom the book will be written, create the book and gift a smile to that child as they see themselves portrayed as the hero of a story.

"I worked in a nonprofit my entire career with kids battling life-threatening illnesses," she said. "I can't take that away. I can't change that. But we wanted to do something that could make them happy (and) give them something to be proud about to share."

That's how Madison's Message was written, detailing Madison's experience with cancer in hopes that readers would gain a better understanding of what she was going through during treatment.

Part two of the process is even more important: Selling the personalized book and donating the proceeds to the hero's medical costs. 

So what's the message at the heart of the story?

"That all kids can win and do whatever they want," Madison said.