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In his cancer battle, SJPII's Hegarty always an inspiration

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Phil Garceau for ESPNBoston.com

HYANNIS, Mass. -- It may have been 18 months ago, but Saint John Paul II senior Christian Hegarty vividly remembers the moment that turned his life upside down.

Sitting on a bed of the first floor of the Cape Cod Hospital emergency room, Hegarty was hoping to finally get a definitive answer behind the throbbing pain in his knee after numerous misdiagnoses.

However, what he wasn’t prepared for was the news that doctors were about to deliver.

An MRI revealed a seven-inch tumor was growing in his right knee, and doctors diagnosed him with the osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

Blindsided. It felt like a punch right to the gut as air seemingly rushed out of the room. Hegarty was merely looking for a reason behind the pain. Never in his wildest dreams could he imagine the culprit was cancer.

Doctors began explaining the disease to himself and his parents. But with his mind racing, it came across more as gibberish.

“I had always associated cancer with death,” Hegarty said of the crushing news. “I always thought worst case scenario.”

Thoughts raced. Questions mounted, and answers were few and far between. It took a few hours for the initial shock to wear off, but later that evening Hegarty took it upon himself to find out as much as he could.

“I started Googling everything to find out more and that didn’t help much for my mentality, but it was just devastating. Seeing my family what they were like, just seeing my future, it was terrible.”

With a school the size of SJP, the news quickly spread and it didn’t take long for Hergarty’s coach and teammates to learn of the news.

“When it’s a kid and a player, it’s just so unfair and that’s what got to the core of me, it’s just not fair,” Lions manager Mark Santos said.

Hegarty was just coming off a breakout sophomore campaign with the SJP baseball team, working his way into the loaded lineup of the MIAA Division 4 power that was full of Division 1-caliber talent.

Just five months prior to his diagnosis, Hegarty was nearly the hero of the 2013 D4 title game against Lowell Catholic.

Deadlocked in a scoreless battle in the top of the seventh, Hegarty walked to the plate with two outs and a man on second. The sophomore connected with a pitch, lacing a line drive that appeared destined for the right-center field gap.

Then from seemingly nowhere, the Crusaders’ centerfielder ranged deep to his left, and tracked down the line drive to end the inning and the threat.

“There are probably only two kids in Division 4 who could have made that catch, and they were both playing in that game,” Lions manager Mark Santos joked.

That was the last at bat for the Lions season, and potentially Hegarty’s career, as the Crusaders walked-off with a 1-0 victory with a flare single in the bottom of the inning.

Less than six months later, Hegarty was the victim of a cruel twist of fate.

The next 11 months was full of hospital trips, weekly chemotherapy and a certain hell that many couldn’t possibly understand.

11-12-13

While preparing for his basketball season in the fall of 2013, Hegarty knew something was not right.

His right knee began throbbing and before long, it swelled up. Shortly thereafter, the then junior could no longer put any pressure on his leg while the pain intensified.

Searching for answers, Hegarty visited the doctor after doctor for help, but experts were baffled. Some believed it could be Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease, a common overuse injury in the knee with similar symptoms

However on Nov. 11, with the pain unbearable, Hegarty visited the emergency room of Cape Cod Hospital.

“I could barely walk, I was limping back so I went to the emergency room and they took an MRI,” Hegarty recalled. “They sent me to the Children’s Hospital the next day and they found it from there.”

The diagnosis was stunning.

Doctors at Cape Cod Hospital had found a seven-inch tumor in his right leg, ranging from the top of the tibia, through the knee and up to the femur. The Children’s Hospital confirmed the findings the following day.

Hegarty was blindsided with his diagnosis of osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer.

“The doctors said that this was so rare, that your average doctor would never see this,” said Hegarty. “My osteosarcoma is in one in 400 million people, it’s one of the most rare cancers there is.”

Just two days later, Hegarty’s diagnosis deteriorated further as a full body scan revealed that the cancer had metastasized to his lungs, sending his survival rate plummeting from 70 percent to a lowly 30 percent.

“I was thinking of my family, friends loved ones, I just assumed I would die,” Hegarty recalled. “Immediately worst case scenarios ran through my mind.”

Hegarty had no time to dwell on the thought as the following week he began chemotherapy treatments.

For the next 11 months, Hegarty made weekly trips to the Dana Farber Institute in Boston, where he underwent between one and five sessions of chemotherapy per week.

The treatments quickly took a toll on Hegarty. Roughly three weeks in, he began to feel the side effects. Everyday tasks became a struggle. Energy was sapped. Hair began falling out.

“More than half the days I was in the hospital, weather it was treatment or a blood transfusion or to monitor my heart or whatever but that was really tough,” said Hegarty. “It’s nothing like any healthy person would understand, it’s the worst possible colds and flu and nausea and never ending.”

On Feb. 28, 2014, Hegarty had his first surgery to remove the tumor in his right leg, where it was replaced with a cadaver bone and metal.

Over the summer, Hegarty underwent two more major surgeries, one on each lung to treat the cancer that had spread.

Finally on Oct. 9, Hegarty wrapped up his final session of chemotherapy and after a full body scan on December 16th showed no growth, he received the bit of good news that he had waited over a year to hear.

His cancer was in remission.

“When I heard the news, it was a mixture of relief and joy,” senior captain Matt Santos said. “You can’t really know what he was going through but you had to know it was tough as hell and that it was a weight off his shoulders.”

Breaking The News

Driving his car in November of 2013, SJP coach Mark Santos will never forget the phone call that came through from his principal, Chris Keavy, and athletic director, John Muldoon.

“He said ‘you might want to pull over’ and I thought he was kidding and he broke the news the Christian had been diagnosed with bone cancer,” Santos recalled. “When he told me that I just lost it and I did end up having to pull over.”

Tasked with the job of having to inform his team of the devastating news, Santos gathered his team during the offseason in the Lions weight room to deliver the heart wrenching news.

“Shock,” the younger Santos said of the moment. “I don’t think anyone wanted to say anything. It’s tough when it’s someone you’ve worked hard with for so long and you just see it taken away like that and we just all felt for him.”

“It was hard, because as a leader you’re trying to let them know that it isn’t a death sentence, which you don’t know at the time,” coach Santos said. “But you try to communicate with them that he’s still apart of the team and at the same time you are watching their reaction and its emotional.”

Shortly thereafter, the elder Santos had his first conversation with Hegarty in which he says was “one of the hardest conversations he has ever had.”

“It was probably more tough for me than him because he had probably already processed it and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing,” Santos explained. “But he showed a level of maturity that really was so adult-like that he kind of put me at ease, and I was thinking I was trying to put him at ease.”

Support rolled in from all around Hegarty, family, friends and the baseball team alike. Hegarty was never far from the minds of the Lions squad, keeping up with him every step of the way.

“I have three older brothers, they were always there for me, my parents and the baseball team,” Hegarty explained. “People from my school were great, checking in on me but specifically the baseball team. Everyday, someone wanted to know how I was doing and they would communicate with everyone.”

Thirteen months after his diagnosis, Hegarty, who was declared to be in remission, is currently back with the team.

A Source of Inspiration

The Lions were heavy favorites to return to the Div. 4 championship game in the 2014 season, as they returned the entirety of their finalist team from the previous year.

But now the Lions weren’t just playing a championship. They were also playing for Hegarty, who was rarely in attendance for school, never mind the team’s baseball games.

St. John Paul II went 21-1 during the regular season, and while Hegarty wasn’t in the dugout, he was never far from the team.

For the duration of the four-month season, someone was responsible for carrying Hegarty’s No. 9 jersey to practices or games, where it was hung either in the dugout or on the white flagpole adjacent to the Lions’ home dugout.

The team also created wristbands with his number on it, which was worn by all players on the roster.

“Every time they put on those wristbands, it conjured memories that he was with us and we really didn’t have to say much during it, because they knew it, it was like silent code,” Santos explained.

With his heavy schedule of chemotherapy sapping the energy out of Hegarty, the junior made it to just two games during the Lions’ run to the Div. 4 State Championship.

“It really sucked not being able to be out there, all I could do was root for my team from wherever I was, which was usually the hospital,” said Hegarty.

In both games however, his presence was felt as the Lions put together two of the biggest wins of their season.

The first was a primetime Friday night game against cross-town rival Barnstable, where before the game Hegarty walked out to the third-base foul line during pregame introductions to a thunderous applause from both sides. The Lions overcame a three-run deficit in the game, emerging with a hard-fought 9-7 win over the Div. 1 Red Raiders.

The second was the Div. 4 South finals against Abington, where the Lions locked up the South Sectional hardware for the second consecutive season with a 3-0 win.

“It was tough getting up and moving around, I was really skinny and I couldn’t really move much,” said Hegarty said of that June afternoon at Campanelli Stadium in Brockton. “I was on crutches from before the surgery until about a month ago, it was tough being there.”

As senior captains Ben Gibson and Michael Young walked out to collect their sectional trophy, the duo brought Hegarty out with them to home plate to hoist the trophy.

“That was awesome,” Hegarty said as he took an extra second to recall the moment. “They tried to make me as much of a part of the team as they were but I was just as happy as they were.”

Santos added: “It was such an unselfish group, that they were so glad to have him there. When that was presented, even thought he wasn’t a captain, it was like come on up here and be apart of it.”

Hegarty couldn’t be with the team during their 6-4 victory over Lowell Catholic in the Div. 4 state semifinal game. The Lions rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh against the Crusaders to avenge their state championship loss from a season prior.

With the Div. 4 title game slated for Saturday, June 14, 2014, Hegarty once again couldn’t be in attendance, as he had chemotherapy scheduled at the Dana Farber institute in Boston.

“That was probably the first time we talked about it before a game,” Santos said. “The kids have been asking if Christian was going to be able to make it and he obviously had treatment but the kids were talking with him that day.”

Behind a complete-game shutout from senior right-hander Austin Houlihan, the Lions conquered the Div. 4 title, with a 3-0 win over Western Mass. champ Hopkins Academy.

“It was the weirdest thing, we were in Worcester, he was in Boston but it felt like he was with us the entire time,” said Santos.

After the game, Santos was the first to talk with Hegarty, sending him a text messages saying “State champs, 3-0!”

To which he responded, “Yeah! Congrats, tell the boys I love them.”

Didn’t miss a beat

Amazingly, despite missing weeks of school during his junior year, Hegarty is scheduled to graduate on time.

With the help of tutors, along with time spent over the summer to complete his classes, Hegarty finished his required work and will be attending Boston College in the fall.

But before then, there’s another goal that Hegarty is tracking down and that’s one last appearance on the baseball field.

“I am really hoping to come back at the end of the year, just maybe DH so I’m working towards that, but it’s probably not likely because I can’t run well,” said Hegarty. “I haven’t even tried hitting yet but I’m working out every day, but its once of my goals to be apart of the team again.”

There is no telling if the idea is a realistic possibility at this point, as running is still difficult for the senior, but a there is no denying the moment it would be.

Santos is emphatic about the idea saying, “If he gets clear and I can get him an at bat, I’m in. There is no holding back and we’ll structure it so there is no heavy lifting on his part.”