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A cancer survivor walks to keep her friend’s memory alive

‘Together we’ll be the greatest team there’s ever been’

Mattie Long will be in Boston on Sunday with her family and friends, all of them part of Mattie and Mandy’s Militia, ready to support the Jimmy Fund and honor her late friend Amanda Lee.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

FALMOUTH — They were sick young girls who knew things only sick little kids like them could really and truly know — more than they should ever have to know.

They knew about scary doctor visits. About horrifying diagnoses. And all those intravenous treatments.

About X-rays and MRI scans. And infusion rooms. And about the terrified looks on the faces of parents who wonder whether their cherished child is going to survive the cruelty, the ravages of childhood cancer.

“So when you’re going through chemotherapy, you’re talking to your friends and they’re like: ‘How are you doing?’” Mattie Long, 27, told me the other day. “And you say, ‘Yeah, I’m feeling like this emotionally’ or, ‘I’m feeling like this physically.’

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“And they say, ‘OK, yeah, I get that.’ But they don’t get it. No, they don’t understand it. And I’m glad they don’t understand it.”

But Mattie Long had a friend who deeply understood.

A cherished friend who knew all too well about the medical journey that was threatening her life. Threatening both of their lives.

Her name was Amanda Lee. And Mandy and Mattie formed a bond almost instantly when they met at Logan International Airport on their way to see the Red Sox during spring training in 2015.

“To have someone who truly understood what I was going through was so new to me,” Mattie said. “And it was amazing to have that.”

Two kids who didn’t want to be known as two kids with cancer.

Two girls who wanted to laugh and sing and goof around. Just like kids everywhere.

“We both really, really loved the movie, ‘Grease,’” Mattie said. “And we would have this impression of Sandy from ‘Grease.’ Olivia Newton John. I have this impression of Sandy and I have an impression of Danny, who was John Travolta.”

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Her friend loved it. It cracked her up.

“Any time I knew she needed a laugh, I would pull out my Danny Zuko impression, and it would make her laugh,” Mattie recalled. “And that’s perfect. I didn’t have my driver’s license until I was 21. Amanda lived two hours away.

“What we did was my dad would drive me to Foxborough. There’s a gas station right next to Gillette Stadium. And Amanda’s mom would bring her down and they’d pick me up at this gas station, the halfway point from Hamden. And we would sing, ‘Defying Gravity’ from the musical ‘Wicked.’”

Together we’re unlimited. Together we’ll be the greatest team there’s ever been.

It’s a great lyric.

And it perfectly captured a precious friendship, a friendship of silly laughs and inside jokes — and an unbreakable bond founded upon a common diagnosis that would alter the courses of their lives.

For Mattie it happened like this:

“The first indication that we got was when I was 16,” she told me. “It was a week and a half before Christmas break, and I just developed a headache. We tried Tylenol. It didn’t do anything. Ibuprofen didn’t do anything.

“I went to the doctor because at this point I was sleeping like 19 hours a day. I couldn’t go to school. My pediatrician was like: ‘It’s a migraine. It will go away.’ And we were like, ‘OK. Cool.’ So, we go home. We tried Excedrin. That didn’t do anything.”

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She grew increasingly nauseous. Her neck hurt. Her vision began to blur.

“It was extremely frightening,” she said. “I was 16.”

When she returned to her pediatrician, they did a further examination.

“What they saw was my brain pressing against my optic nerve,’’ she told me. “There was swelling back there. And, so, they said, ‘We’re going to send you to the hospital to get a CT-scan. You can go home. We’ll call you.’ And I’m like, ‘OK.’

“So, we do that and a couple hours later we get a call and they said, ‘You need to go to Boston Children’s Hospital immediately. Pack a bag and go.’”

So in December 2011 — at age 16 — that’s what she did.

“We get there, and we go into the emergency room, and there’s a wheelchair with a sticky note that had my name on it,” she said.

What followed was an elaborate procedure that is a medical mouthful: endoscopic third ventriculostomy.

“My tumor was blocking my third ventricle,” Mattie Long told me. “And my cerebral spinal fluid wasn’t able to pass by it. It was just getting built up and my brain was swelling with it. So, they went in and made a hole in my third ventricle and allowed the fluid to flow around it.”

A medical miracle. A life-saving procedure. A new lease on life for Mattie Long. But Mandy wasn’t so lucky.

All of that helps explain why Mattie Long will be in Boston on Sunday with her family and friends, all of them part of Mattie and Mandy’s Militia, ready to support the Jimmy Fund.

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“Mandy fought a long and hard battle,” Mattie wrote to supporters. “She gave me, and so many others strength with every single day. She will forever be with us. On October 2, we walk for Amanda. We walk for strength and courage. We walk for a cure.”

During that walk this weekend her thoughts will doubtlessly turn to her cherished friend — the friend who shared inside jokes like the one centered around a high-heeled foot pointing perfectly straight up into the air.

“Whenever we had some gossip or something to talk about, we would text each other high-heel emojis,” Mattie said. “And that’s how you knew: ‘I need to talk to you.’

“We always joked about getting matching high-heel tattoos. And she never got the chance. So I got one for her.”

The T-shirts have been printed for Sunday. And Mattie Long said she knows she will feel her friend’s energy and her spirit along the walk’s route.

“We were there for each other,” Mattie said. “I would visit her in the hospital. I have this very weird thing where I don’t let people visit me in the hospital. I don’t know what it is. I think it’s like being seen that vulnerable.

“I don’t want people to see me like that. But Amanda visited me in the hospital. She understood where I was at. I trusted her to see me in that space.”

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Mattie Long is an animal control officer here now.

She wears a badge on her belt. And somewhere just behind it, she keeps a special space in her heart for her friend.

And for all those times when they would smile and laugh — and savor the preciousness of life for which Mattie Long has a renewed, deep and abiding appreciation.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.