Maria Dennis, a DJ with Mix 106.5, talks about how she used her own battle with leukemia to help others fighting their own diseases. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)
On the presidential campaign trail, Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" became a bit of a joke after it appeared in heavy rotation at Hillary Clinton's rallies.
But for Maria Dennis, the anthem may never get old.
And I don't really care if nobody else believes
'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me
In March 2014, the Mix 106.5 DJ was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer, and given 50-50 odds of surviving. In characteristic fashion, she has publicly shared the trials and triumphs of her life-and-death battle. Though she returned to the airwaves in 2015 just months after she was declared cancer-free, much of her fight remains in the present. She had a scare over the summer, and just last month, she traveled to Kansas City to meet the stranger who donated life-saving bone marrow.
"I have been just diagnosed with leukemia. It's a mind-blower," she said on the air.
"I'm going to lose my hair. I love my hair," she said, laughing, of her blond locks. She told listeners how she tucked her hair into a hat to show her sons how she would look after the chemotherapy.
"I'm gonna beat this."
She always has been an open book on the radio.
"I talk about my life — the positives, the negatives — because I'm not the only one going through some of this stuff," says the Pikesville resident. "Even before I got sick, you know, if I had a bad day ... I would talk about it. It was kind of natural for me to just go on and talk about, 'Here, I've got a life-threatening illness, and I'm not gonna just let it get me.'"
Just weeks earlier, Dennis had co-hosted a Radiothon event at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, helping raise more than $800,000 for care for sick children. Then, for six months, she was living there, at the Kimmel Cancer Center.
During chemo, she lost her hair. She lost 30 pounds, and there were times where she thought she'd lose her life. But her sons, then 7 and 9, needed her. Marrow from the Kansas donor, along with the support of her family, colleagues and listeners, made the difference, she says.
Nuns in Connecticut sent prayer shawls. In Pikesville synagogues, members prayed for her. Her aunt stayed with her in the hospital for 30 days at a time, and fans sent hundreds of emails.
"They were my army, my own personal army of angels, and I was literally dying in my hospital room at Johns Hopkins, and I felt that, and it got me through," she says.
Dr. Keith W. Pratz, Dennis' oncologist, says such strong support benefits patients.
"It's a part of the treatments that we don't have any control over, but if patients don't have that support system, it's really hard for them to get through the treatments," he said.
He also notes Dennis' resolve.
"These types of cancers can take your life in a matter of weeks," says Pratz, 40. "She's been through a lot, and I think as someone that takes care of a lot of these patients, I think she's been remarkably positive every step of the way" — even on her roughest days.
Dennis was in isolation, meaning visitors had to suit up before entering her hospital room to protect her weakened immune system.
"Quite honestly, I walked in [a couple of times], and I thought she was done," says Dennis' husband, Eddie, 50.
But through it all, he says, Dennis remained her positive self.
"What you hear on the radio is who she is. Some people put an act for the radio. It's not an act," he says. "She has such a large following, and it's all real."
A stranger's gift
What Dennis thought would be at least three weeks in the hospital turned into months of chemo and the need for a bone marrow transplant. No family members were matches, so Dennis went through the National Marrow Donor Program's Be the Match registry. She had three 100 percent matches. One was half a country away.
Randy Braun, 44, of Lenexa, Kan., had been inspired to sign up for the registry at a church drive in 2012. Two years later, he received emails he thought were spam and calls from unknown numbers — before receiving a package confirming he was someone's match. He agreed to it.
"That's what I signed up for," Braun says.
The national registry makes patients in the U.S. wait at least a year before providing contact information for their donor. Without knowing Dennis' name, Braun flew to Washington for a series of physicals and tests before undergoing a bone marrow procedure at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital the morning of June 26, 2014. Dennis received the transplant that afternoon at Hopkins.
Dennis and Braun exchanged emails, but it wasn't until this past August that Dennis and her husband flew to meet Braun and his wife. They had dinner at a Capital Grille in Kansas City.
"I was so nervous," Dennis says. "It was wonderful. It was everything I could have expected."
There were tears. To show her gratitude, Dennis gave Braun a book with photos of her and her family and handwritten notes from her children, showing Braun what his donation meant to them.
"It made me emotional," says Braun. His wife is around the same age as Dennis; his children, around the same age as Dennis' boys. "I could see my kids in the writing."
Braun, who has been called a hero by those who have heard his story, said he would endure the entire process again, and he praised Dennis.
"She was the one who went through the tough stuff."
CBS radio's vice president of programming, Dave Labrozzi, 57, says that when Dennis returned in January 2015, "we could see the battle she had before us."
Dennis underwent additional treatment for complications after the transplant. Graft-versus-host disease, in which transplanted cells attack the body, caused her to break out in rashes. Waking up at 3:30 a.m. to prepare for her morning shift at the station took its toll on her body, so Dennis moved to the 10 a.m.-to-2-p.m. slot she works now. She developed neuropathy, numbness in her hands and feet, so she had to be cautious while walking and handling things. Her stomach had been scarred by the chemo, which meant her diet completely changed.
Her bout with leukemia inspired Labrozzi to put singer Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" on the air after finding it on YouTube early last year. It's believed to be the first time a station aired Platten's song.
"I played it, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is going to hit home,'" says Labrozzi. He gathered Dennis and station employees together and played the song, noting that he would be putting it on the air in Dennis' honor.
Tears streamed down Dennis' face.
"I knew right then that we had something," he says.
Soon, other stations picked up Platten's song, which eventually climbed to No. 6 on the Billboard charts. Platten was signed to Columbia Records.
"[Dennis] was an inspiration to all of us," Labrozzi says. "Her fight and determination was something to watch. ... We're all better people because Maria is in this building."
In June, Dennis marked the second anniversary of her transplant (in November, she will officially be cancer-free for two years). The road to get there has changed her in many ways, she said.
"I don't worry about the small stuff anymore at all. The kids don't pick up the toys; it's not a big deal. The dishes don't get done; it's not a big deal. People are what matter," Dennis says.
"We're not in charge of our lives, so I just feel like if I can do the best I can do, then I'm doing OK."
Over the summer, Dennis experienced a series of headaches. She feared they were a sign of relapse, but confirmed with her doctor that she was still cancer-free.
A chromosomal abnormality means she must take chemotherapy in pill form for the rest of her life. After the headaches, her doses were cut in half.
Her hair now hangs inches below her ears, and three birds outlined in blue are tattooed on her wrist.
It's a symbol of "flying high and being free of this awful disease," Dennis says of the tattoo, which she got while in remission.
And "Fight Song"? It's another reminder of her struggle and strength through it all, she says. It also doesn't hurt to have a theme song.
"I'm not gonna give myself credit for this song," she says, laughing, "but I kind of am."
Title: DJ for the midday morning show at Mix 106.5
Birthplace: Providence, R.I.
Education: Attended Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., graduated from the Sawyer School in Rhode Island, a trade school where she studied radio broadcasting.
Former jobs: Board operator at 94HJY in Providence, R.I.,1991-1993; nighttime on-air personality at WMMO 98.9 in Orlando, Fla., 1993-1995; midday host, assistant program director, music director at WBOS 92.9 FM in Boston, Mass., 1995-1997
Bragging rights: Dennis helped raise more than $1 million at Radiothon in 2015 to help children at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, and was awarded 2015 English Radio Person of the Year by Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.