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Georgia girl beating the odds against cancer

Monica Sandoval, who has beaten leukemia twice, is trying to become a black belt in taekwondo. Courtesy of Jenni Girtman

The Atlanta Falcons still face long odds in their bid to finish 19-0 this season. And they can look to one of their dedicated fans, Monica Sandoval of Winder, Ga., for inspiration any time they need it.

Sandoval, 17, has beaten acute myeloid leukemia twice in three years, has undergone two bone marrow transplants since 2010, and had her gall bladder and appendix removed earlier this year.

Radiation treatments and chemotherapy, along with the aftereffects of her many procedures, often leave her physically exhausted and in intense pain.

But it hasn’t stopped her drive to reach black-belt status in taekwondo. And it makes whatever excuse you have for not working out pretty lame.

“It’s a roller coaster,” Sandoval told Playbook. “I want to be normal just like everybody else.”

She practices on a regular basis, usually up to an hour, even when tethered to an IV. And she works on noncontact skills because radiation treatment left her bones so weakened that her doctors will not allow her to kick practice dummies or opponents for a few more months.

"It's faith. That's what pushes me,” Sandoval said. “I've always had a positive outlook on everything. I try hard not to get my head down. I would ask myself, even if my day stunk: 'What's the best thing that happened to me?'"

In January, Sandoval received her green belt the day before she entered the hospital to resume her chemotherapy.

Buddy Barrett, who is a 5th dan black belt and has been teaching taekwondo for 23 years, calls Sandoval "a perfect student" who demonstrates dedication and compassion.

"She's focused and driven. She's kind and considerate. She's so concerned for everybody," he said. "She tries very hard and doesn't give up even when she doesn't feel good. She's amazing."

The relaxation techniques taught to taekwondo students have been vital for Sandoval’s recovery, especially “on those really hard days, of which there were many,” said her mother, Jeannie.

“One of the things that our instructor teaches us is self control," Monica Sandoval said. "You won't be able to be normal if you don't control yourself. Meditation is an important part of [the] healing process.”

Her next level of progression in her ranks is purple belt. "Once they hit green, we consider them to be dedicated," Barrett said. "Taekwondo is built on [the] natural principle of body motion. We're trained to look at the individual. Everybody is evaluated differently. She can progress regardless of her medical issues."

A senior at West Hall High School in Oakwood, Ga., Sandoval is looking to attend college in Georgia and plans to continue her progression toward that coveted black belt while in college.

She has a creative side that manifested itself as she won a contest to design the 2012 Aflac Holiday Duck -- sold to raise money for pediatric cancer research. Her winning design also earned her a trip to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, where she’s scheduled to be interviewed by Al Roker during NBC’s telecast.

“It's a dream come true for me. I’ve watched that parade from before I can remember -- to go to New York and see the parade," she said. "It's so exciting. Those will be the three best days of my life.”

Dr. Frank G. Keller, a specialist in pediatric hematology and oncology at the Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorders Center in Atlanta where Sandoval has been treated, said she is in remission, and there is no medical reason for her not to continue her taekwondo practice and progression.

"Exercise in general helps in terms of handling the stress,” Keller said. “Having cancer, the burden of uncertainty can weigh you down. That's where the benefits of good physical condition can help the most. We're proud of Monica. She's quite the kid."