Overcoming Fear with Friendship

A Connection Built in the Melodies Center

“We’ve had really rough patches, but I think that makes us stronger and creates more of a bond, because it’s not your typical leukemia journey,” said 18-year-old Olivia Allen, of Saratoga Springs, speaking of 11-year-old Charli Martin of Burnt Hills.

The two girls may be different ages and go to different schools, but their worlds collided in the Melodies Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders in the spring of 2023 when they were both diagnosed with B-cell high risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) the same week. They’ve been best friends ever since.

Before their diagnoses, life was full of extracurricular activities for both girls. Charli wrestled six days a week and was Mary Poppins in her school play. Olivia played field hockey, ran track, and was a gymnast. Days before the girls were diagnosed, Charli came in fourth place in a New York State wrestling tournament and Olivia competed in a statewide competition with her gymnastics team.

“I love that we’re both really strong, physically but also mentally. That’s my favorite part about Charli,” said Olivia. “If we can win competitions while being super sick, we can definitely get through this!”

In April 2023, Charli felt a lump on her neck. Her pediatrician did a biopsy and sent her to the Massry Family Children's Emergency Center. “When we were in the emergency room, I think I made our oncologist Dr. Sarah Koblick repeat to me 250 times, ‘it’s curable’,” said Kayla Martin, Charli’s mom.

“It all happened very quickly, and that was the beginning of our journey with the Melodies Center.”

At the same time, Olivia was battling mononucleosis and was progressively getting worse. She was observed overnight in the Massry Family Children’s Emergency Center and doctors discovered she had leukemia. “Immediately my stomach dropped,” said Mellisa Allen, Olivia’s mom. “She had to lift me up. I was in shock. A lot of fear, a lot of questioning, and a lot of tears.”

Soon after, Charli and Olivia met thanks to Melodies Center Child Life Specialist Mary Beth Nichols. “They were both starting the same treatment in the same week. Charli had just gotten her port put in, and Olivia was nervous, so Mary Beth asked if Charli would talk to Olivia,” Kayla said. “In came Liv and I think it was just an instant connection.”

“I just walked in and was like ‘Hi! I’m Olivia! I have the same cancer as you’,” Olivia said. “She let me look at her port without even knowing each other, and then we became best friends.”

“I love her personality, and that she kind of says whatever she wants. She’s not afraid to speak up!” Charli said.

Charli and Olivia experienced a lot of “firsts” together after their diagnoses, including getting a tour of the Melodies Center, which made the experience less scary. As treatment began, the girls tried to schedule appointments at the same time and always asked to be put next to one another. When they weren’t at the hospital, they talked on the phone or got their nails done together.

And they supported each other through major obstacles that occurred as side effects of chemotherapy. In June, Olivia suffered a stroke. She was unable to walk for several days and unable to move her arm for nearly a month. Thanks to physical therapy, Olivia regained full motion. Then in August, Charli suffered from neurotoxicity and lost all movement for four days. That was followed by a blood infection, gut infection, and pneumonia all at the same time.

Now the girls are getting back on track with their treatments.

“We were always there for each other, even if it was a tough time. We lift each other up and make each other smile,” Olivia said. “Now we feel like family. We call ourselves ‘blood sisters,’ but she’s also my best friend because no one else I know has experienced this.”

But that’s not the only friendship that developed, Charli’s mom Kayla and Olivia’s mom Mellisa also became friends! “She has been my lifeline!” said Mellisa about Kayla. “We immediately connected. There’s something about her and I said, ‘she’s my person!’”

“You don’t know what it’s like until you’re in it, and as a mom, you sugar-coat things in the process,” Kayla said, “But with Mellisa, I can be raw and authentic, and I can express my true feelings.”

Both families are grateful for each other and the compassionate team at the Melodies Center, who also feel like family. “The Melodies Center does so much to make sure the kids feel like this is just a chapter in their story,” Kayla said. “The team will do anything they can to make sure the process goes as smooth as possible, and they’ll get through it with a smile on their face.”

Mellisa says the budding friendships are a positive that stemmed from a negative. “I said from the start, these girls are going to move mountains, and they’re doing just that!”