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Acute myeloid leukemia, bone marrow transplant
Ashley Kate Hagen

At 22, an age when many start life in “the real world,” Ashley Kate Hagen had already dealt with a lifetime’s worth of roadblocks and detours. And she persevered.

When Ashley was just 2 years old, she was diagnosed with childhood acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes a large number of abnormal blood cells. Memories of her treatment at Children’s of Alabama are like a dream, she says. She remembers visits from the hospital’s volunteer clowns and playing with other children who shared her diagnosis. She also remembers the kindness of her oncologist, Dr. Robert Castleberry, and nurse coordinator, Pat Cotton. “My Dad wore a beard at the time and Dr. Castleberry had a beard, too, so I called him Dr. Daddy,” Ashley said.

Ashley has been in remission for 20 years after chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant. Her donor? Ashley’s older sister, Kasey, who was 5 years old at the time.

“That means a lot to me,” Ashley said of her sister’s action. “It’s always been a ‘wow’ kind of thing between us.”

Ashley’s relationship with Children’s didn’t end once she was in remission. She joined the hospital’s childhood cancer survivorship program, the Taking on Life After Cancer (TLC) Clinic. Approximately 80 percent of children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer become long-term survivors who are at risk for late effects related to their cancer diagnosis and/or treatment and require lifelong monitoring. The TLC clinic, the only of its kind Alabama designed to help pediatric cancer survivors optimize their health and quality of life.

“We talk about a lot of things to keep my body in its best health. It might be a little harder for me to maintain good health, but it’s possible,” Ashley said, adding the clinic gives her a sense of comfort among peers who’ve been through a similar ordeal.

“I don’t have many friends who’ve been through the same thing, so knowing others in the clinic made me feel more comfortable talking about my experience,” Ashley said. “I can tell my doctors what’s going on, I can tell them how I feel and it’s very easy to express that to them.”

As a result of her care, Ashley shadowed a pediatric oncology nurse at Children’s and was inspired to study nursing at Mississippi College, where she graduated in May 2018. She recently joined the nursing staff at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB)-Highlands Hospital.

“It all of sudden hit me. This is what I have to do,” Ashley said of her shadowing experience. “Ever since then, I never doubted being a nurse. I’m giving back what so many gave me.”
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