As 2022 began, Haley Ashton, a senior at Leonardtown High School, was overcome with fatigue. An accomplished dancer since the age of 3, Haley was used to working hard and having the energy to keep up with her dancing demands. She was also busy applying to college, finishing high school, and planning for the milestones ahead. Haley was diagnosed with mononucleosis, but rest and treatment didn’t help the fatigue. Given Haley’s family history of cancer, she received more extensive bloodwork to rule out other causes.

Haley was diagnosed with high-risk B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and began treatment in early February 2022. Jeffrey Toretsky, M.D., Chair of the CCF Scientific Advisory Board, and Chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center oversaw Haley’s treatment plan, just as he had little sister Myla’s treatment.

Haley’s younger sister Myla, now 11, was diagnosed in 2018 at age six with ALL, so unfortunately, Haley was all too familiar with the road ahead. The family history went deeper still, as, unimaginably, mom Denise, was diagnosed at age seven with the same B-cell ALL. Denise was treated nearly 40 years ago at Children’s Hospital and remains cancer-free today. Myla, now a sixth-grader in Leonardtown Middle School, has been five-years cancer-free. With mom and sister to support her and provide hope, Haley began her own battle.

B-Cell ALL in children typically presents as fatigue and in kids younger than ten. Being 17 years old, Haley would have to undergo more intensive chemotherapy. There is no known origin of B-Cell ALL, and the odds of two siblings and a parent all receiving the same diagnosis are exceedingly rare. The family is currently being genetically tested, searching for markers and identifiers. Brother Devyn, 15, remains without symptoms.

Between February and June 2022, Haley endured intensive chemotherapy and was determined to walk at her high school graduation- which she did! Following graduation, Haley was sidelined with COVID-19 and endured intensive chemotherapy in isolation throughout June. To make the burden worse, the Ashtons live St. Mary’s County, so the trip to Georgetown takes two hours each way- a trip the family makes almost weekly.

Haley was accepted to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), but delayed her enrollment until January 2023. She was able to take online community classes in Fall 2022 and was determined to begin college, in person – which she did. As of April 2023, Haley lives in a dorm on campus and maintains a full schedule as a Psychology major.

Haley began her college career while in active treatment, where she continues today. When she feels particularly tired, she receives blood or platelet transfusions.  Haley will continue long-term (at least one year) maintenance, which will include daily oral chemotherapy, and has a lumbar puncture with chemo every 85 days.

Haley is hoping to continue dancing and doing typical college activities. In February, through Make-A-Wish Foundation, Haley was able to attend the Monsters Dance Convention, which generously gave her a lifetime scholarship to attend as many future hip-hop classes as she wants. This followed Myla’s Make-A-Wish to travel to Hawaii, which the family did in January.

Denise finds it startling that the treatment she received forty years ago is still so similar to the treatment that both her daughters received and are receiving. This illustrates just how critical funding for new pediatric cancer treatments remains. Denise noted, “it is mind-boggling that there have not been more advances in pediatric cancer in over a generation.”

Despite the incredible odds, the Ashton family has a great sense of humor and stays focused on the future. Haley has big plans and is eager to adapt to a more ‘normal’ college experience.

CCF is honored that Haley will share her story at our 2023 Research Symposium on June 14th.