Maggie Cupit never expected to go from the student to the subject when she started at Rhodes College in Memphis three years ago.
Cancer was just cells under a microscope for the chemistry major, until a diagnosis forced the aspiring pediatric oncologist into a battle — and gave her a new purpose.
“I love school, I’m definitely a nerd,” Cupit admits. But at 19, she was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a pediatric bone cancer that derailed her sophomore year.
She was supposed to be starting a job as a student researcher in the school’s program with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Instead, she ended up as a patient.
“They pick about five students a year to do scientific research at St. Jude. It was a very rigorous application process and I didn’t think I would get it my freshman year, but I did…The day I checked in to be a patient was the day I was supposed to start my job.”
The position was saved for Cupit, and she started at the beginning of this school year — healthy — and with a survivor’s perspective on how the importance of the organization.
“[St. Jude] is just like this overwhelmingly happy, hopeful environment and it’s really like no other place in the world, and I don’t know if I could have gotten through cancer without an environment like that.”
Cupit now gives back to St. Jude not only through her research role, but public speaking on their behalf.
Not long into her treatment, Cupit appeared in a commercial for St. Jude and has been attending speaking events ever since, the first in February 2011.
“They realized I might be a good public speaker, because I really loved to talk to people. It was so meaningful for me to be able to express my gratitude to a group of people who had done so much for St. Jude, because I just can’t express how grateful I am.”
Cupit’s public appearances have included music, a rediscovered childhood talent that served as catharsis during the setbacks and frustrations of her treatment.
“I took piano lessons from 2nd grade until 11th grade, mostly doing classical music, and I was really good at it at one point when I practiced all the time. And then I got really burned out and sick of it, and hated it.”
Cupit “just started playing for me” and found solace in music during the weeks she was house-ridden due to her low immune system. This time also allowed her to cultivate her passion for writing.
“Writing, whether it was songs, or poetry, was just a way for me to express myself…That allowed me to get out everything I was feeling, and having that outlet really made a difference for me.”
One song was “definitely the most meaningful I’ve ever written” and has become a unique way for Cupit to share her story as she travels the country for St. Jude.
“While I was going through treatment I made a really good friend, this little boy named Odie. He was 13, and he had a type of cancer basically without a treatment that works…so his prognosis wasn’t good from the start. It was a different kind of friendship than I’ve ever had with anyone, but it was definitely the most meaningful I’ve ever had. He was my inspiration to get through everything.”
Cupit wrote a song about their friendship after Odie passed away, not long after she was released from the hospital. She performed it for the first time in public at Country Cares, in front of “hundreds of people” including country singers and producers.
“I think the biggest reason I enjoyed it so much is because by playing it I’m sharing my story of me and my friendship with Odie. I feel like he lives on through me telling our story and sharing the story of how strong he was and how he got through everything and was there for me. That’s really important to me.”
College has resumed in full force for Cupit, but the experience now includes channeling her passions, from songwriting and music to the research lab, back into St. Jude.
“Not only is it good for my resume, but– this sounds so cheesy– I’m just overwhelmed with this feeling of purpose, and joy and gratitude. It just feels like that’s where I’m meant to be and it feels so good to be able to give where I was given so much.”
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