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Silver's triumphant return

Alex Silver and his mother, Ronna, are both cancer survivors. Courtesy Silver Family

AUSTIN, Texas - - Do yourself a favor and check the back of your neck. This will only take a second.

Feel around thoroughly and make sure there aren't any abnormalities.

Nothing? Fantastic.

Longhorns sophomore first baseman Alex Silver wasn't so lucky, or maybe he was depending on how you look at it.

He happened upon a bump on the right side of his neck during summer school before his freshman year at Texas.

At the time he didn't think much of the quarter-sized bulge. But he thought about it enough to have an E.M.T. friend look at it, and his friend told him to have it checked out. Silver did over Christmas break that year.

"It was Jan. 10, 2011, the night of the football national championship, and my mom got a call," Silver said. "I was hitting with my hitting coach back home, I came home and she told me."

It was a conversation no one should ever have to have.

Silver's biopsy revealed Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue.

It is estimated that there will be 9,060 new cases and 1,190 deaths resulting from this cancer in 2012, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health.

"I broke down," Silver said. "It was tough."

Silver's heart sunk. Wouldn't yours? Here he was, an All-American shortstop from Houston Bellaire set to embark on a promising career for a storied baseball program only to have one hell of a curve ball thrown right through his plans.

"Devastating," his mother Ronna Silver said. "That is really the only word to describe that your child would have something like that happen to him at such a young age when their whole life was just starting."

But after that initial "I can't believe this is happening" moment, the even-keel, always positive Silver flipped the switch on his latest life obstacle, bent on a full recovery.

"I never asked 'Why me?" he said. "I guess I was lucky that it was me instead of someone that was less fortunate, who couldn't get the proper care from [University of Texas] M.D. Anderson [Cancer Center] or have the proper support from their whole family, or a whole family of teammates. I just wanted to know what I had to do to get rid of it."

He didn't have to look very far for answers.

A mother's comfort

Word association varies with age. Say 'breast' to a teenage boy and you'll likely get a different reaction than one would a grown man.

Follow the word 'breast' with 'cancer', though, and those chuckles that teenager might have had from the word alone will subside very quickly, especially if it's in context with their mother.

That was a phrase that hit close to home for Silver during his seventh and eighth grade years as his mother battled the deadly disease. During the ordeal, it was Ronna who kept the drama from her son.

"We tried to keep our world as normal as possible as a family can with a mom with cancer," she said. "It made him, if anything, a much more caring person.

"We laughed about it because when you are 12 years old and your mom has breast cancer that is a really strange thing because, you know, he's a boy and that's a girl thing. But he was very cool with everything and I think that has a lot to do with the kind of man, or boy, he was at the time."

After six months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and a handful of surgeries, Ronna has been cancer free for seven years.

She handled it all with such grace and maturity that it eased Alex's mind as he began his own taxing treatment process.

"I went in every other Sunday for two months [for chemo]," Alex said. "I would be here for the Friday and Saturday games. I couldn't participate. Then I'd leave Saturday afternoon and go to the hospital."

There were four different medicines Alex had to receive through an IV, which he would take for three to four hours every Sunday.

"The IVs never really hurt until the last one they had to put in," he said. "They had to rush it a little bit and it would burn some. My stomach would hurt and whatever I would eat that night I can't eat anymore because it reminds me of that time."

Even in the bleakest of times, though, Alex's mind was still centered on the game he'd grew up loving since he was four. He insisted the IV be placed in his left arm because he didn't want to weaken his right arm, the one he uses to throw a baseball.

"It was grueling," he said. "I'd wake up and go to class for two hours and then I was just worn out the rest of the day. My whole mouth and tongue would burn for a while. It was an uncomfortable situation that no one should have to go through, but if it helps cure people then I would do it in a heartbeat again."

Those are the kinds of statements people have come to expect from Alex, who always looks at the glass half full.

"He handled it with grace and maturity that I don't know how he did it," Ronna said.

Ronna herself might be the explanation.

"If I didn't have her standing by me the whole entire time …" Alex paused. "She could give me stories about how she handled it. Wherever I went she was there. Even just getting around M.D. Anderson. That hospital is so big, she'd just be like 'OK, we are going to go to the fourth floor and take a right here.' She volunteers there."

The big day

If there is a silver lining with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, it's that it has an almost 85 percent survival rate, and an even better chance that it won't return.

All Alex needed was that day of clarity, and he finally got it on April 1, 2011.

"I finished radiation and the scan showed there was still scar tissue from the radiation but that is the day that I consider being done," Alex said.

That allowed him to return his attention to baseball and a team that stood by his side the entire time. They dedicated the season to Alex with patches on their helmets and caps.

"Words can't describe how I felt. Be it shaving their head or giving me a ride to and from the airport," Alex said. "Anything I needed, the whole team was there for me."

But Alex was there for them too. Even though he couldn't do much, he practiced as much as doctors would allow and was always a positive force in the dugout.

"The fact that they had so much faith with him even through a time when he couldn't help them, he couldn't do anything for them, helped him be that much more motivated to go on and do what he wanted to do," Ronna said.

Four days after he'd deemed himself cancer free, Alex made his first appearance as a Longhorn as a pinch-hitter against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. He collected his first hit and scored his first run against Baylor four days after that, and logged his first career RBI against the Bears the next day.

"I guess it is a blessing in disguise that I didn't medical redshirt last year because I got that experience," he said. "I am happy I didn't sit out. Coach [Augie] Garrido and I had an understanding the first time he put me in that in the latter innings, if I got tired, to just tell him. He never had dealt with this and neither had I."

Alex ended up playing in 12 games (starting eight) last season and collected five hits in 29 at-bats. He was an inspiration to all.

"Last year when he was going through all of this he didn't change, which I think is a credit to his character," Texas pitcher Nathan Thornhill said. "Someone in that situation might get down but Alex just stayed positive, stayed himself and he is still working hard."

A change and a chance

Alex had visions of being the starting third baseman from the moment he stepped on campus. But that position eventually went to fellow classmate, Erich Weiss, who has solidified himself as one of the better third basemen in the Big 12.

So when Alex returned to action in 2012, he wasn't too sure where he was going to fit in.

"I was backing up Erich some, playing first base a little," Alex said. "I was just working hard. Baseball is something I love to do and having it taken from me for three or four months was rough."

When the chance arose to become the fulltime first baseman, Alex stepped up.

Not only has Alex been flawless with his glove (.922, the highest of any starting infielder), he's also been terrific at the plate. He's hitting .294 with eight doubles, one triple, 15 RBI and 18 runs scored. His 16-game hitting streak, which came to an end on April 13, is the longest on the team this season.

"I have to say it is a great feeling to contribute to the team," Alex said. "Having a starting role, I couldn't be thankful enough."

With Alex back and healthy, neither could the Longhorns.