A University of North Texas student who recently received a life-changing cancer diagnosis says support from friends, classmates and total strangers helps motivate her to get through it. That, and an unbeatable attitude.
Maddie Cook-Saunders has ovarian cancer. The UNT dance team member attended a men's basketball game in Denton Thursday night. What happened once the game began surprised everyone, Maddie included.
It is hard to top the atmosphere – and the attitude – at the UNT gym referred to as the "Super Pit."
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"There's a lot of excitement," said Cook-Saunders, a sophomore criminal justice major. "And it's a lot of fun to be right in the middle of it."
When the UNT Mean Green tipped off against Florida Atlantic, Maddie was there. But because of her cancer treatment, she hasn't participated in the dance squad since her diagnosis. She usually sits in a chair, courtside, next to her coach.
"It has taken some time to get used to being on the sidelines," she said. "But I have to keep a positive mindset and say I'm going to be back out there."
Cook-Saunders knows better than most -- the ball doesn't always bounce your way. The score – won't always be in your favor. But the 20-year-old keeps a positive attitude regarding her journey, and carries the motto: "find joy."
"It's always been so positive," said Madi Huber, a friend and fellow dance team member. "And she's always like, pushing through. I've never seen her be hard on herself."
"When you find out your baby girl has a big girl disease," explained Ken Saunder, Maddie's dad, who made the trip to Denton with his daughter. "We thought she'd never be able to dance or cheer again."
That is why what happened during the game came as a shock. Though she still can't perform more strenuous routines on-court, Maddie's coach urged her to get out there with her team, to cheer from the sidelines.
"I know this is what she wants," said Brittani Richards, UNT dance team director. "Anything I can do to help her in her journey and setting her goals, I'm there 100 percent of the way."
It was a return no one expected. Certainly not Maddie. Not this soon.
"No, I did not," she said. "It was a lot of fun. I missed it a lot"
Cook-Saunders still has a long road ahead of her. After two surgeries, doctors found no active cancer cells. She faces at least two years of regular testing and doctor visits. There are no guarantees.
"Don't think of this as an old woman's disease. It's not," said her father. "It affected my 20-year-old daughter."
A young woman with so much support from the UNT community and beyond. After learning of her diagnosis, she received hundreds of messages of support, many from people she's never met. Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon, among those to tweet out messages of encouragement with the hashtag #handinhand4madeline.
Maddie says she fully expects to return to campus in the fall. She's been taking online courses this semester from home. And she says she will also return full-time – to the dance team.