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Touching show of compassion held downtown for young cancer patient
Parade for AJ 1.jpg
A large crowd gathered in the rain on Main Street on Wednesday around 6 p.m. to usher their loved one back into town. A.J. Dodson was diagnosed with cancer in March and had been in Centennial Medical Center in Nashville undergoing treatment since then. - photo by Lisa Hobbs

A cancer diagnosis can be shocking and overwhelming. When it’s your child, an instant crisis is created in the family. 

“Anytime you hear the ‘C’ word, emotions go crazy,” said Stephanie Dodson, whose daughter was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma and T-cell leukemia. “When it’s your child, there’s a helpless feeling that no parent ever wants to experience.”

Atlantis “A.J.” Dodson, 13, was a healthy, active teen at the beginning of 2020. The crisis came three months later.

“In March, she started having symptoms of strep throat," said Stephanie. "It was the beginning of COVID-19 and everybody was starting to practice social distancing. We did the call-in for medical treatment and video service. They gave her penicillin, but she couldn’t keep it down.”

After a few days of no symptom improvement, they visited a walk-in clinic and were sent to Saint Thomas River Park Hospital’s emergency room. 

“She was evaluated and a CT scan was done,” said Stephanie. “The doctor walked in and said they were sending her to Centennial because they found a tumor on the CT scan of her throat and chest. She had a crying moment. I had a crying moment. We pulled it together. They transported her from River Park to Centennial that day. They did a biopsy on a Monday and we got the diagnosis the following day.” 

T-cell lymphoma is a type of cancer that forms in T cells (a type of immune system cell). T-cell lymphomas may be either indolent (slow-growing) or aggressive (fast-growing). Most T-cell lymphomas are non-Hodgkin lymphomas. Prognosis and treatment depend on type and stage of the cancer.

“While at River Park, the doctor said he didn’t think it was cancerous because her blood count was great,” said Dodson. “It was cancerous. We had another moment.”

Treatment started immediately. Over the next 40 days, A.J. underwent three lumbar punctures, five chemo treatments, four radiation treatments, two chest tubes, and two bone marrow biopsies.

“This kid has been through an extensive amount of stuff,” said Dodson. “I felt every emotion that can be imaginable. The one emotion that kept recurring was how proud I am of her and how she handled everything. She has been amazing.”

There is never a good time to be diagnosed with cancer, but Dodson discovered there is a worse time: when hospitals ban visitation to prevent a pandemic among its patients.

“One of the worst things about this, not that having cancer isn’t bad enough, but due to COVID-19, no visitors were allowed at Centennial. She was there 40 days and not one visitor was allowed to come see her. It was a very trying time for us made more difficult by COVID-19. Because we live an hour and a half away, Centennial was kind enough to let both myself and Travis to stay. My husband stayed three weeks, but then he had to go take care of things at home. I was there the whole 40 days.” 

A.J. was released the evening of Wednesday, May 27, and all those friends and family members attempted to right what they felt was a wrong. Approximately 70 people gathered on Main Street on Court Square holding signs expressing their love and support for the 13-year-old.

“We used to cheer together,” said Christa Cowen. “I want to tell her that I love her and that it will all be OK. I’ve missed her so much.” 

Wendy Nunley was also among the supportive crowd. 

“She does basketball, volleyball, cheerleading, travel cheerleading, just any kind of sport that there is,” said Nunley. “She’s so outgoing. When this happened 40 days ago, no one really knew what was going on in her life. It was sudden and everything came to a halt. When we put it on Facebook to inform all her friends of what was going on, the response was amazing. We got what felt like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of phone calls from people who knew her and wanted to help.”

A.J.’s cheer team members started selling bracelets for $10 and other friends and family members created T-shirts. 

“We’ve already ordered about 100 shirts,” said Nunley. “The funds will go toward helping the family pay any bills they have. I’m sure they have something that needs to be paid after being in the hospital for 40 days.”

T-shirt requests can be made by posting on the Facebook page of Stephanie Dodson or Wendy Nunley. The cost of the shirts is $20. 

A.J.’s journey to recovery is not over. 

“We went back Thursday to Nashville for a treatment,” said Dodson. “We have to go back Monday for another treatment. They are going to teach me how to do the treatments at home. As long as she continues to do well, I can give her the treatments. She will have to have a bone marrow transplant later on. That’s a couple of months from now. We’ll have to spend another 4-6 weeks in the hospital then. For now, we’re home. She’s very weak and needs someone by her side 24 hours a day.”

The family would like to express its appreciation for the community’s support during these trying times and to everyone who stood in the rain to make A.J.’s homecoming special.