Haleigh Epperson’s next chapter: 16 years after cancer

Haleigh Epperson
Senior Haleigh Epperson

She was given a seven-percent chance to live through high school. In six weeks, she will don a UNC Pembroke student-athlete stole and walk across the stage as a college graduate.

UNCP senior Haleigh Epperson was six years old when she was received the news no child should ever have to hear. She had cancer. On January 17, 2002, doctors at the Brenner Children's Hospital in Winston-Salem diagnosed Haleigh with late, stage-three rhabdomyosarcoma (rhabdo), a highly aggressive and malignant muscle cancer found mainly in children.

"We were blessed and thankful that we weren't in stage four and it wasn't in her lungs, but she did have some lymph node involvement which meant that we needed to treat it very aggressively," recalled Epperson's mom, Laurie.

Haleigh would then undergo 36 radiation treatments over a total of 57 weeks of chemo. During a time that could have easily diminished a child's spirit and outlook on life, Haleigh never stopped fighting.

"Haleigh was a strong-spirited and strong-willed child," Laurie added. "And that spirit and strength paid off when she got sick."

As the weeks and months in a hospital bed dragged on, Haleigh was looking for a way to put a smile on faces other than her own. She opened "Haleigh's Tattoo Parlor" in her hospital room and painted the faces and nails of anyone who stopped by. From other patients to nurses and doctors, Haleigh proved to be a shining light to each and every person who walked through the doors of her hospital room.

When Adam Petty, the grandson of racing legend Richard Petty, lost his life in a tragic racing accident in 2000, his family vowed to realize his dream of building a place where children with life-threatening illnesses could escape their daily struggles and enjoy childhood experiences without paying a penny. In 2002, the Petty family was in need of a face for their Victory Junction project.

"When they (Petty family) approached the local hospitals looking for 'that kid,' Brenner Children's Hospital immediately knew who they needed," Laurie said. "And that was Haleigh."

Victory Junction opened its gates to for the first time in June of 2004 and Haleigh, who played an expansive role in raising nearly $24 million dollars to fundraise the camp, was among the first to experience the love, security and comfort that camp still offers to this day. Campers can participate in medically-safe activities from zip lining to archery and softball to hot-air balloon rides, in addition to fishing, kayaking and much more.

Haleigh remembers Victory Junction as a place that made her feel important and gave her hope in a difficult time.

"I strongly believe Victory Junction saved my life," she said. "I wasn't just a sick kid. I was a sick kid that had a story to tell."

The next chapter in that story was written on April 29, 2002. One-hundred and two days after being diagnosed with rhadbo, Dr. William Ward removed Haleigh's entire left triceps muscle, along with a plethora of lymph nodes, to rid her body of the cancer that almost took her life.

"That day marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of the rest of my life," Haleigh said. "I wasn't the kid with cancer anymore, I was the kid that beat it."

With cancer in the rearview mirror at the age of seven, it was time for Haleigh to live her life as a kid outside the hospital. Naturally, she found her way to the softball diamond.

"Softball was on outlet for her (Haleigh)," Laurie said. "It was a place she could take out her frustrations and be a normal kid again."

What was an activity at Victory Junction and an outlet after recovering from cancer, softball quickly grew into a passion and became the next chapter in Haleigh's book.

"Haleigh was always of the mindset that she wanted to go to college and play ball," Laurie remarked.

That mindset became a reality when newly hired UNCP softball coach Brittany Bennett inked Haleigh to the 2015 recruiting class. But college softball didn't come without its obstacles.

"I can remember watching Haleigh play when we were recruiting her and she fit the profile of who we are as a team," Bennett said. "She's been through so much adversity in her life and I knew she could handle anything we threw her direction.

"From the minute Haleigh has stepped on campus, she hasn't been able to do every single thing that other players can. But instead of looking at that as a negative, she looks for alternatives to put the same amount of work in every single day."

On March 24, Haleigh played in her 128th-career game at UNCP. She has logged 65 hits, 49 runs scored, 31 RBIs and 29 stolen bases in her four-year career thus far. But her story in Black & Gold goes far beyond the statistics.

"Softball has brought me to new people and new places and given me the opportunity to share my story on a bigger stage," Haleigh said.

The UNCP softball team returned to Victory Junction last fall to give back to the camp that saved its teammate's life.

"We are grateful to Victory Junction because they allowed us to invest our time into their mission and serve others like they did for Haleigh so long ago," Bennett added. "When we arrived at the camp and saw Haleigh's picture on the wall, it was completely overwhelming."

April 29, 2002 saw one chapter of Haleigh Epperson's book come to a close and another begin when she defeated cancer. On April 29, 2018, history repeats itself when she plays in her final regular-season softball game and graduates from UNC Pembroke six days later.

"Cancer changed my life and who I am as a person and although it was the hardest part of my life, I wouldn't take it back for the world," Epperson said. "Cancer brought me to places I would have never gone, people I would have never met and allowed me to make memories I will keep forever."

As an ambassador of Victory Junction and childhood cancer, Epperson encourages those currently in the fight that "there may be numbers against you, but always fight for your life because miracles do happen!"