“I believe God saved my life for a reason”
By Katrina Cunningham, Class of 2013
Every night, Marissa Huddleston cooks dinner, finishes her homework and laces up her sneakers. She runs a few miles, enjoying the darkness and the feeling of renewal it brings her. A former Miss Oregon pageant competitor, she sees beauty in the bun that has collapsed into messy strands around her glistening forehead; her sweat-stained pink T-shirt; her defined leg muscles. For a cancer survivor, there is nothing quite like the feeling of fitness.
During Marissa’s junior year of high school, she began noticing strange bruises on her legs. She was eventually diagnosed with stage III chronic myeloid leukemia. In 98 percent of cases, this type of leukemia occurs in people over the age of 60. At age 17, Marissa was the only minor to ever have been treated for it in the state of Oregon.
Though her bone marrow transplant was a success, Marissa was still extremely frail and weak. The doctors pulled her mother aside to discuss “options” if Marissa didn’t make it. Realizing the possibilities, her mom wheeled her daughter’s then-100-pound body out to a small garden for a heart-to-heart. Tears poured silently down Marissa’s face as she felt the warm breeze, suddenly experiencing a sense of peace she hadn’t felt in months. To her doctors’ amazement, her health began to improve drastically from that day on – she was allowed to go home 10 days later. She has now been cancer-free for more than four years.
After Marissa’s recovery, her best friend Ashley was diagnosed with lymphoma for a fourth and final time. They were together for the whole treatment process, and Marissa was able to share with her, pray and be there when she accepted Christ. She passed away later that year. Marissa both planned and spoke at Ashley’s funeral, continuing the penchant for public speaking that would become her desired career path.
Today Marissa is a junior communication arts major at George Fox, where she’s developing and refining that passion for using her story to inspire others – one race at a time. After months of training, building her weakened muscles and limited endurance, she successfully completed the Portland Marathon in 2010 with Team In Training, an organization that benefits the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The following year she became a mentor for other runners, and this year became Team In Training’s grassroots marketing coordinator. Never shy, Marissa also speaks on behalf of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which sent her and her family on an all-paid trip to the Caribbean during her illness.
Moved by the prayers and encouragement she received along her path toward healing, Marissa’s goal now is “to give some of that love back.”
“I believe God saved my life for a reason,” she says. “I run marathons, speak at events, raise money and awareness, and do whatever I can to fulfill His purpose in my life. It isn’t about the hard times that we go through, but how we use them to better ourselves and the world around us.”