UNCG Magazine

Molly Oldham, singing her song

A rare gift for vocal performance … and a rare cancer to overcome

Taylor Theatre’s a big stage. And for the 19 students polishing their choreography for the “My Deer” scene, Sept. 13 starts a big week – the final one to focus on blocking and choreography. Except for one senior, no one has performed in a musical while at UNCG, due to COVID 19.

It’s a big scene for Molly Oldham, a junior musical theatre major. She’s dancing and singing at center stage, her moment to shine. “O deer, my dear, my dosey doe!” She’s finally on stage, surrounded by lots of talented Spartans and friends. Living her dream.

She’s worked so hard for this moment. After a few run-throughs of dancing while duetting with fellow junior Trevor Neal – the director and a choreographer giving notes to energize the scene – she tosses her sweater. The scene is gelling. She’s ready.

When I’m acting, I don’t feel like I have to pull as hard to get those emotions out – they just come to me.

Molly Oldham

Before the surgery

She was ready back in August 2019, excited to relocate from Ohio to start her freshman year in the new UNCG Musical Theatre program. She and five other students would make up its first cohort.

But she learned the reason for her increasingly severe headaches: a brain mass the size of a tennis ball. She was diagnosed with Stage Three Anaplastic Ependymoma, a rare, aggressive brain cancer.

As she went into surgery, she told her mom, “We have to release my spot.” Professor Dominick Amendum ’01 said, “Don’t worry!”

Tumor surgery was followed by seven weeks of proton radiation and months of intensive rehab. Social media videos of her singing went viral. Family, friends, her new cohort, and faculty at UNCG all stepped up to support her in any way that they could. 

Classmates traveled to her Ohio hometown to participate in a “Cabaret for a Cure” benefit for Molly.

She arrived on campus in February 2020, and soon had a significant seizure. Molly’s mother, Bunny Oldham, sped down in her car. Amendum stayed in Molly’s ward until her mom arrived. “He has been like a father figure for me. He sat with me,” Molly recalls.

COVID curtailed in-person rehearsals and performances. In Fall 2020, Oldham was back on campus and doing well. Along with two fellow Spartan undergraduates with whom she had become close friends, she moved into her apartment in Greensboro on Aug. 15, the one-year anniversary of her cancer diagnosis.

“The theatre department has done so much for Coronavirus. They have air filters in our singing rooms. We have special masks they built for us to perform in. I feel like the theatre department has done a really great job of making sure everyone feels safe,” she said.

In January of this year, scans revealed that she’d need a second brain surgery. After the craniotomy to remove two tumors and more rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, her treatments ended in late spring. Scans in early summer showed no new tumor growth, yet it’s an aggressive cancer, she noted. “I was hoping I could say I am cancer-free, but I’m just not.” (See update below.)

A transformation

“Because of my cancer, I realize that I don’t take things for granted anymore,” she says. “When I’m acting, I don’t feel like I have to pull as hard to get those emotions out – they just come to me.”

Amendum and Assistant Professor Erin Speer note that they look to recruit students who have strong character, a personal story to tell, and who can grow and develop as human beings as well as professionals. That is Molly.

A unique strength of the program is the emphasis on an individualized culture of care for the students. It encourages a sense of family and community.

While Speer and Amendum go extra miles to help their students, they also have expectations. While they took special care to accommodate Molly’s late entrance into the program and her unique needs, they also have held her to the same high standards as others. Professional musical theatre is highly competitive, so it is important to UNCG musical theatre faculty to prepare their students as best they can for what lies ahead.

She has had the opportunity to sing for a variety of cancer awareness events from Utah to Washington D.C., including singing the National Anthem in front of 20,000 people for the NHL Hockey Fights Cancer night. She has a national following, fueled by fellow cancer survivors. She’s known as “The Mighty Molly.”

She appeared on “The View” in May. There, host Whoopie Goldberg patched in Amendum by live video. “I was speaking to Chancellor Gilliam the other day about your story and he was reminding me of the Spartan spirit and how we take care of each other and we look out for each other,” Amendum said. “You embody that spirit to everyone here on campus and everyone around the world dealing with what you deal with.”

“Chancellor Gilliam and UNCG are giving you a full scholarship for your remaining two years here at UNCG,” he told Molly.

This fall, she and her classmates are studying hard, rehearsing diligently, giving it all they have. “We have to be disciplined,” she said, as they all look to the future. She is carrying 14 hours while putting in many hours in Taylor Theatre. But it’s not all work, as seen in the occasional TikTok videos with her theatre roommates.

“I’m so passionate about my career,” she says. “Music is so important for healing. It inspires me to be a better person,” she says. 

“I want to make people feel inspired.”

Update to this story (which was printed Oct. 25): Molly and her family have outstanding news. They’ve gotten the results of Molly’s most recent scans. “They are clear!” her mother writes. “She is actually at a point where the doctor at Duke said that there is always that chance of it coming back, but for right now, she can say she is Cancer Free!”

UNCG Musical Theatre

The BFA program, created in 2019 and with small classes, has quickly developed a national reputation. Led by Amendum ’01 and Speer, it now accepts only 2% of applicants. Amendum, currently music supervisor for “Prince of Egypt” in London and formerly music director for “Wicked” on Broadway, is Smart-Tillman Artist in Residence. The program’s first cohort of students – now juniors – are on stage in front of a live audience for the very first time this year.

For ticket information, COVID protocols, and more, visit vpa.uncg.edu/theatre.

By Mike Harris ’93 MA and Matthew Bryant
Photography by Martin W. Kane

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