On March 3, Megan Penny was riding high. She had just hit a two-run home run to lead the Fontainebleau softball team to a key District 6-5A win over Northshore. The Bulldogs were undefeated at that point, and Penny, their sophomore catcher, was a primary reason why.
Two days later, Penny told her family she wasn’t feeling well. After a couple of games in the Lafayette tournament that weekend, they noticed she looked ill. Then she began vomiting, and she missed school on March 7. Penny returned on March 8, primarily so she could play in that day’s game against Hammond. But when she got to the Fontainebleau fieldhouse to dress out, she began vomiting again.
Penny was taken to a doctor. She and her family figured she had a stomach virus. But after blood was drawn, the medical staff asked for another sample because something just wasn’t right.
“Her white blood cell count was so high, they thought their machine was broken,” Megan’s father, Eddie Penny, said.
Megan Penny was admitted immediately to St. Tammany Parish Hospital, where doctors broke the news that she had leukemia. It didn’t seem right then, and it still doesn’t, Penny said.
“It literally happened so fast,” the 16-year old Covington resident said. “On the third, I hit a home run. On the fifth, I really started to feel gross and out of it. On the ninth, I had leukemia. I thought I was just tired from starting the season up again. Maybe I had the flu.”
Penny was taken by ambulance later that night to Ochsner in New Orleans. She was given a spinal tap and her first chemotherapy treatment. She now is undergoing chemo twice a week for 28 days, then will receive a monthly treatment for another two years. She will not return to school until the fall at earliest, and softball is on hold temporarily, if not indefinitely.
The news hasn’t broken Penny’s spirit, however. She gave a glimpse of her toughness only moments after she learned she had leukemia.
“I’m not going out like this,” she announced to family, coaches, and teammates gathered at St. Tammany Parish Hospital.
That’s become something of a mantra for Penny. A Facebook group was started and titled “I’m Not Going Out Like This.” She said she thinks about that statement often, now that she’s focusing all her attention on beating cancer.
“There is no other way to take it,” she said. “The cancer is alive in me. Things that are alive can feel fear. I can’t show it fear, or it will be worse. I can’t let it get to me. It takes a mental toughness, and I’m lucky I’ve had that my whole life. There’s not time for negativity. There is so much positivity and support.”
Though she won’t play for Fontainebleau again this season, Penny stays in close contact with her teammates. One in particular has something in common more than their red and black team jersey.
Berkeley Mardis, a junior at Fontainebleau, was diagnosed with bone cancer during her freshman year of high school. She now starts on the junior varsity team, and is an active player in the varsity dugout. She’s been cancer free for nearly two years after having part of her fibula removed.
“It’s hard,” Mardis said of her own recovery but also trying to grasp her friend’s illness. “But I told her I’m going to be there for her, no matter what. I told her I know what she’s going through, and I know what she’s thinking. If you need me, come to me.”
Penny said she’s taken those words to heart.
“Berkeley gets it,” Penny said. “She knows chemo. She knows doctor appointments. She knows what happens next. She understands. The other girls on the team were there when she went through her cancer. So they know about the late night texts when you can’t sleep. They know how to deal with it and how to help too. I don’t know if I could do this without such a great group of girls.”
Others in the community have reached out, as well. On March 19, a softball benefit was held to raise money to help defray the Penny family’s medical bills. Penny was in attendance and watched as Fontainebleau defeated St. Scholastica. Slidell and Springfield also played. Pictures were taken, and hugs were shared.
“It was an awesome day,” Penny said. “There was such a big turnout, and to have so many people there that I’ve played ball with for years was really special. It was my first full day out in a while. It felt good to be back in my element.”
Eddie Penny said softball has been an important part of his daughter’s life for years. He knows she misses it. And with 80-85 percent of persons her age beating leukemia following proper treatment, there is a chance she could play again in the future.
“She’s handling the physical part really well,” he said. “And mentally, she’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever seen. She’s not letting it get to her ... yet. She wants to beat this and play ball. That’s what she does.”