ELLEN KICKS CANCER: Alumna’s infant, family give her strength for the fight

  • Portrait of Ellen Frye in her home
  • Ellen walking her daughter Mary Albert towards her father, Austin Frye
  • Austin holds Mary Albert as his wife, Ellen Frye looks on
  • Freys walk hand in hand across a bridge while Austin holds his daugher who is peaking back over his shoulder
Ellen Frye in her Mississippi Delta home. Frye says her husband Austin was her support, but she found strength in their daughter Mary Albert and wanting to make sure she never missed a “first.”

Just 11 weeks after welcoming a baby girl into the world, Ellen Frye learned she had cancer, and in that moment, one of the most joyous times in her life became one of the most challenging.

Would she have the strength to fight cancer and care for her newborn? Would she make it to see Mary Albert’s first birthday?
Worried, yet determined to make the most of her situation, the Mississippi State elementary education graduate sought treatment.

With the support of knowledgeable doctors and loving family and friends, Frye now is in remission and eager to kick cancer for good.

“Every time I sat up in my hospital bed, I saw that picture of Mary Albert,” Frye said, gesturing to a canvas portrait at her home in Scott, a town in the delta. “She was my motivation.”

At the time of her diagnosis, Frye was teaching first grade at O’Bannon Elementary in Greenville.

“It came on suddenly,” she recalled. “I bumped into a cabinet at the grocery store, and when I got home, I had a bruise the size of a softball on my leg. I knew something was wrong.”

Frye visited her doctor the following day to have bloodwork done. The day after, she visited a Greenville hospital. From there, she was referred to a doctor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center where after undergoing a bone marrow biopsy, she learned she had a specific type of acute lymphoblastic leukemia known as precursor B, which affects the way bone marrow produces blood.

“Leukemia is the only cancer that can be cured right now, and I was lucky to have a string of doctors get me to where I needed to be,” explained Frye, whose UMMC doctor recommended she seek treatment at one of the world’s most respected centers of its kind—the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

With her mom and husband Austin by her side, Frye spent six months undergoing a variety of treatments, including a 30-day high-dose chemotherapy treatment known as induction therapy. She also received a successful stem cell transplant.

“Chemo puts your body under stress. I had so much chemo, but luckily, I had few side effects,” Frye said. “I used to have long hair, but because of the chemo, it went from long to a bob to a pixie cut. I finally said ‘Buzz it!’ I’m planning on keeping it short.”

Despite being poked and prodded for tests and having poison coursing through her veins as treatment, Frye worked hard to balance her medical demands with those of being a new mom. She credits a strong support system with helping her make it through.

“Austin’s been by my side for everything,” Frye said of her husband, a Mississippi State history graduate and fellow Madison native. “He’s my best friend, and I’m so lucky to have him. We both have very supportive parents who dropped everything to come help, and I still have the wall of cards people sent me while I was in the hospital.”

United Blood Services Mississippi State Blood Be the match

Frye said she’s even developed a new skill as part of managing some of the lesser-known symptoms of chemotherapy.

“Chemo brain is real, so you have to keep your mind active and expand your memory,” she said. “I’ve always been artistic, and while I was in the hospital in Houston, I brought adult coloring books and calligraphy books, but what stuck was the calligraphy.”

With the recent purchase of a calligraphy pen and laser, Frye has been able to address envelopes for wedding invitations at the request of friends. She and Austin also have been able to resume shared pastimes, including antique hunting and tennis.

To fight the effects of “chemo brain” Frye began practicing calligraphy to keep her mind active. She puts her hobby to use by addressing wedding invitations.

“I’ve been very lucky that my energy level bounced back quickly. Between her and playing tennis, I get a great workout,” Frye said with a smile, as she reached down to pick up Mary Albert. “Austin and I have always enjoyed exploring. We love going and finding antiques because we want to give them a new life.”

Because ALL affects her body’s white blood cells, Frye said during treatment, she was more susceptible to germs and therefore couldn’t be in places with large crowds. Now that she’s doing better, she and Austin are looking forward to bringing Mary Albert to football games at their alma mater.

Although she misses teaching, Frye said she is grateful to be able to stay home and take care of the little one she calls her greatest inspiration.

“When I was going through treatment, I was worried about missing Mary Albert’s firsts—steps, words, rolling over, even her first birthday party—but we were home for all of it,” Frye said. “From this journey, I’ve learned that you have to be content in your situation and thankful for what you have.”

Having a positive attitude and the determination to live life to the fullest have been and always will be important, she added.

“I just want to be healthy,” Frye said. “I told Austin, ’I’m going to be around bugging you for a long time.’ Attitude is huge, and Mary Albert and my family give me something to fight for.”

By Sasha Steinberg | Photo by Megan Bean