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If Ashley Townsend hadn't fallen during cheerleading practice, hitting her head on the gym floor, she never would've won the Lady of the Locket beauty pageant.
She also wouldn't have known about the golfball-sized tumor attached to her brainstem.
"I was really surprised," Ashley, 16, recalled recently of getting the diagnosis late last year. "I didn't think anything like that would ever happen to me."
The miracle, as her mother describes it, happened on Nov. 2. Ashley wasn't doing a big stunt, but she somehow slipped out of another cheerleader's arms.
She still felt dizzy a day after the fall, so she visited a doctor. A CT scan revealed something that looked like a calcium deposit, so she got an MRI the next day.
Then they rushed her to neurosurgeon Dr. Anil Nanda.
"We happened to get in with him, which was a miracle," her mother, Jeanna, said. "The first words he said were, 'Do you realize what a blessing it is that she fell?'"
Ashley had a PET scan and a second opinion. Apparently the tumor had grown so much it was constricting the flow of fluid to her brain. To remove it, Nanda had to peel it off the brainstem, dissecting it piece by piece around the blood vessels.
The Townsends were told Ashley "could've had neurological problems or facial paralysis, because you don't touch the brainstem," Jeanna Townsend said.
But the surgery was successful, and the tumor turned out to be a rare kind, called choroid plexius papillioma, that won't come back.
After the surgery, Jeanna Townsend asked Nanda if she could see his hands.
"He held both of them out," she said. "I was crying, and I said, 'I want to hold the hands that saved my daughter's life.' He jerked them away and said, 'No ma'am, not my hands. God's got her in the palm of his hands, and he used me to get the pieces that fell through his fingers.'"
Ashley, who's feeling fine from the Dec. 19 surgery, has to gradually work back up to activities at Haughton High School, such as cheerleading and pitching for the softball team. She decided to enter the pageant at 9 p.m. on the day applications were due, so she turned hers in one day late.
"I thought it would be something new and different," Ashley said. "Since I'm out of softball right now, I thought I needed to do something. A lot of my friends were doing it, and I thought it would be fun."
Out of 38 contestants on Jan. 28, she won the top spot, Lady of the Locket, along with Miss Congeniality. After making it to the top 15 contestants, she answered a question on stage: Where would she send her class on a field trip?
"I said we would definitely go to Hawaii," Ashley recalled. "I thought it would be neat to see the Pearl Harbor site. It would be a good learning experience. Then we could have a lot of fun on the beach." When asked why she thought she won, Ashley pointed to her faith.
"Since I gave all my worries and everything to God before I went into surgery, I think he was just honoring me," she said. "Me and my mom had talked about it, too. She said she thinks God was just using that to honor me for obeying him and giving everything to him."
Ashley was given clearance Jan. 27 to go back to cheering at basketball games, as long as she stayed clear of stunts and off to the side, where she wouldn't get hit by the ball. She's practicing pitching with a catcher but won't be able to play softball until March.
One thing that won't return is the migraines that Ashley has experienced since she was 7 years old. Nanda told her they were likely caused by the tumor.
"He said it could've been there my whole life, or just from a couple of years ago," she said. "It's kind of weird to think that could've been there the whole time."
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