Martha: Glowing Gold for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

Martha von Dietman was born in the summer of 2017. The fourth child in her family, she was the fastest to walk and couldn’t wait to keep up with her siblings. In hindsight, it’s almost as if she knew her time was limited and she tried to get the most out of it. 

Martha could spend the whole day at the beach eating and playing with sand, building castles, and searching for shells. She was constantly exploring her environment and loved animals, especially owls. But she could also quietly look at books or serve coffee and cake out of her toy kitchen. 

A few months before her second birthday, Martha developed a cold that wouldn’t go away and started walking unsteadily. Her parents took her to the emergency room and a neurologist admitted her to the hospital when her symptoms worsened a week later. An MRI showed a diffuse mass in Martha’s brain stem, which doctors initially misdiagnosed as DIPG, an incurable tumor with an average 9- to 15-month survival.  

The diagnosis changed the von Dietmans’ world. Martha’s health declined rapidly after learning of the tumor, but a shunt, high doses of steroids, and radiation saved her life. A biopsy and debulking surgery offered a glimmer of hope when it revealed her tumor was an embryonal tumor with multilayered rosettes (ETMR). Although this tumor type is also highly aggressive with low survival rates, Martha recovered quickly from surgery and started chemotherapy just days later with some initial success. 

In total, Martha underwent 7 surgeries including open brain surgery and 46 sessions of radiation. She was sedated over 60 times, received countless blood transfusions, and a dozen lumbar punctures or intraventricular injections. 

And yet, Martha never gave up. After radiation, she learned how to walk again. When she lost that capability after surgery, she learned to crawl and stand up again. Martha fought very hard, but the tumor was too aggressive. The tumor relapsed and she had to stop chemo. New trials showed no success.  

Re-irradiation gave Martha a couple more weeks, and she was able to have one last trip to the beach with her family. Three months before her third birthday, she passed away peacefully at home in her mother’s arms surrounded by family. 

The von Dietmans continue to honor Martha’s memory by raising awareness and supporting other families facing a child’s brain cancer diagnosis. They recently became parent mentors in the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation’s peer-to-peer program and have partnered with the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the city of Charlotte, NC for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month to help advocate for families in their local community.  

If you’re in Charlotte on September 1, look to the skyline when Uptown Charlotte will glow gold in honor of Martha and every child diagnosed with this terrible disease. You can also join the PBTF community in standing with families throughout September by visiting curethekids.org/MYPBTF and clicking on “Recognize Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.”  

Sign up for our 30 Days to Change a Life challenge and your support will provide patients, parents, siblings and survivors with the life-changing resources they need and fuel a 12x return on new scientific research. Help us make a world without childhood brain tumors possible — a world where children and families like the von Dietmans can thrive.