ATWOOD, Tenn. — Madalyn Cook is wearing her pink jacket at West Carroll’s softball game.
She doesn’t pay too much attention to what’s happening on the field. But every now and then she’ll look toward second base and see a familiar face — her mother, senior Ashley Barlow.
In 2014, Barlow — a freshman at the time — gave birth to Madalyn.
Life hasn’t been easy for Barlow. At 17, she’s beaten cancer twice and is raising a 3-year-old daughter with the help of her boyfriend and her mom. On top of that, she’s a leader on the softball team.
“I guess everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to describe it in one word. It’s crazy the way things definitely happen. That’s for sure.”
‘I’ve had a pretty rough life’
Barlow sat in St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for a checkup. It was 2014 and she didn’t yet know she was pregnant with Madalyn. Routine bloodwork was supposed to be done.
Barlow was diagnosed with epidermal carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, around her ninth birthday.
“(It was) kind of devastating,” said Brenda Barlow, Ashley’s mother. “I mean, you just don’t know what to expect. It kind of flips your whole world upside down.”
Ashley had two surgeries to beat it. But it came back more than four years later and latched onto her lymph nodes.
Another surgery followed, this one leaving a visible scar on her neck. Once again, she beat the disease — and she’s been in remission ever since.
“I’ve had a pretty rough life,” Ashley said. “I have to go back every year and have MRIs and make sure nothing is back. I don’t know what I would do without my parents and my family, because they help a lot.”
The check-up at St. Jude was after she beat cancer a second time, but something was off with her bloodwork.
Nurses came in and asked for her mom and her grandma to step out of the room. The bloodwork, which was re-tested, confirmed something wasn’t quite right.
But it wasn’t cancer this time.
At 13 years old, Ashley was pregnant.
Making a decision
Ashley didn’t have a lot of time to think it through before telling her mother. The nurses went out and her mom came back in. She told her mother, who was understandably upset.
But what Ashley told her mother the next morning shocked her.
“She said, ‘Mama, this may be the only chance I ever have to have a baby,’” her mother said. “She’d already had cancer twice and she’s like, ‘You don’t know how much longer I’ll be around and if it’ll be back.’ And then she said, ‘if something happens to me this is God’s way of giving you a piece of me.’”
Brenda broke down after Ashley said that.
Ashley and her boyfriend, Madalyn’s father Dakota Cook, will be the first to tell you it hasn’t been easy. They’ve been together for close to five years now.
Needless to say, there are challenges with raising a child while still in high school. Trying to find the right balance between Madalyn, school, softball, and work is demanding.
“It’s definitely difficult,” Ashley said. “There’s a lot of challenges, and plus I have a part-time job. … She (Madalyn) can be really sweet, but she can be the devil sometimes, too.”
No matter how difficult things get for Ashley and Dakota, coming home to Madalyn makes up for it.
“She always cheers you up, no matter what kind of day you’re having,” said Dakota, 20. “Like the way she hugs me and says, ‘I missed you.’ She just always cheers you up no matter what kind of mood you’re in.”
It took him about a week to find out everything she’s gone through.
Immediately, he thought about his own life.
“I have two daughters myself, and I can’t imagine going through what she’s gone through,” Acuff said, fighting back tears. “I’ve never seen anybody go through so much; just bad, you don’t want to say bad luck, bad experiences. She just keeps coming back. Great leader, real good girl. I’m going to miss her next year.”
Leaving West Carroll
Ashley’s softball career at West Carroll will come to an end in the coming weeks. She’ll graduate May 10 and is hoping to enroll at Bethel University and enter the nursing program.
She’s already experienced things in life many don’t through her first 17 years. When describing herself going through everything, she doesn’t have many words. But all the ordeals have set her up for the future.
“In a way, there’s a lot of people who wouldn’t have handled it as well as the way I have, so I’m kind of grateful it happened to me and not them,” Ashley said. “I probably wouldn’t be anywhere close to the person I am today if that stuff hadn’t happened though. I’m grateful for that.”