104 and Cancer Free

By Marty Trieschmann

A favorite pillow in Maddie Upton’s Camden, Arkansas, home reads, ‘I’m so far up the hill, I’ve started up the next one.’

At 104, there is no old age joke she hasn’t heard, and she shows no sign of being tired of them. The same positive attitude and grit that saw her through two world wars and the Great Depression has been her go-to in other battles, including cancer.

“I’m not special. I’ve just lived a long time,” she said.

Those who know Upton disagree with the ‘not special’ part — people like James Suen, M.D., UAMS head and neck cancer specialist who has been Upton’s oncologist since first treating her for mouth cancer 1974. Having completed training at UAMS, Suen had joined the Head and Neck faculty at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he met Upton.

“Maddie is an amazing woman, and to live this long, she has strong genes, a great attitude and a wonderful personality,” said Suen.

Born Maddie Byrd Upton on May 23, 1918, in Woodberry, Arkansas, she entered the world during WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic. Woodrow Wilson was president, and women could not vote.

Upton grew up in Bearden, Arkansas, without electricity and a washing machine. She was 11 years old when the Great Depression happened. It was a dark time, but she doesn’t remember it that way.

“It was hard on my parents when the banks closed. I think they got 25 cents on the dollar,” she said.

“We made pine straw furniture. I had one Sunday school dress, but I never felt poor. I had a happy life.” She and her four siblings worked, and her mother earned money as a seamstress.

With no TV or radio, Upton played cards for fun and went to the movies.

“There was only one boy in my high school who had a car,” she said. “He would drive us to the theater. We could buy a box of popcorn and pay for a movie for 15 cents.”

During World War II, Upton remembers standing on a hill above San Francisco Bay when U.S. Navy warships came in from the Pacific. “We knew then that the war was over.”

By her half-century mark, Upton had experienced central events in American history that most only read about. Cancer wasn’t about to scare her.

In 1974 at 56, Upton noticed pain and sores on the inside of her mouth that wouldn’t go away. With few oncologists practicing in Arkansas at the time, her family physician sent her to MD Anderson where she met Suen, also a native Arkansan.

The treatment for mouth cancer at the time was not that different than it is today — chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

Upton underwent surgery to remove her cancer and then received 16 doses of Cobalt radiation, the forerunner to today’s more precise radiation therapy. If her cancer treatment was difficult, she doesn’t remember it that way. It worked, and the cancer hasn’t returned.

Patient sitting talking with doctorWhen Suen left MD Anderson in late 1974 to join UAMS, Upton did too. The two have shared a special friendship over 50 years as doctor and patient.

“He’s the most wonderful man,” said Upton. “He’s just an angel.”

Suen is a distinguished professor in the UAMS College of Medicine and former chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

Upton lives independently in a seven-room house, drives herself to church and regularly attends Camden City Hall meetings. She has her own Facebook profile with 525 friends.

In a 2020 video produced by Unreel Films, Upton attributed her longevity to her outlook. She admits to having aches and pains and trouble hearing, but no one would ever know it.

“I’ve always been a very happy individual,” she said.

“It’s attitude. That’s the main thing in life, and I’m just dumb enough to have a good attitude, I guess. You have to keep fighting. You can’t give up. You may think, I’ll never make it today, but you’ll make it if the Lord wants you to and you help him.”

During a recent checkup at UAMS, Upton asked Suen when he planned to retire.

“Oh, about 103,” he laughed. “That’s my boy! Just hang in there,” she said. “You’re looking good.”