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Shark therapy helps teen ice his battle with cancer


by David H. McGrath || AHL On The Beat Archive


hopelodge_300.jpg On Nov. 28, Worcester Sharks right wing Riley Armstrong and Sharks community relations director Mike Myers paid a visit to American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge in Worcester. In particular, they met with a 17-year-old from Maine named Nathan Briggs.

Located only a few blocks away from the DCU Center, Hope Lodge provides housing to cancer patients from all over the country who are undergoing treatment in Massachusetts hospitals. As the night manager of Hope Lodge, part of my job is organizing evening activities for the guests. In my very first phone call to Mike Myers back in October, he generously offered complimentary Sharks tickets to any of our guests who want to attend a game.

Nathan, who was recently diagnosed with a cancerous tumor behind his left eye, was excited when I told him this. We looked at the Sharks schedule, but unfortunately they had no home games during the time he was going to be in Worcester. Without telling him, I phoned Mike and planned an impromptu Sharks visit to Hope Lodge, telling Nathan I had a “surprise” for him the next day.

Even though he was tired and recovering from surgery he had that very same day (doctors placed rings around his tumor to help concentrate his radiation therapy in the right spots), Nathan was still able to grin from ear to ear after hearing about the surprise. He also begged for hints, but soon realized when I say ‘surprise’, I mean it.

At around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, as Nathan was in the middle of checking his Myspace page, the doorbell rang at Hope Lodge. I greeted Mike and Riley and directed them towards the living room computer where Nathan sat with a stunned look on his face. I said, “Well Nathan, there wasn’t a Sharks game to go to this week, so I thought I’d have the Sharks come here, is that cool?” He responded with a smile of disbelief and a “Yes!” that said “Are you kidding? Of course it’s cool!”

As we sat down, I could see that Riley and Mike came not only to help a teenager through a tough week, but to give him a memory he would cherish the rest of his life. In addition to coming to talk to Nathan, they brought him a poster signed by the entire Sharks team, an autographed picture of Riley and Sharks hat signed by Riley that night, a Sharks media guide, and an American Hockey League guide.

Mike and Riley’s generosity was such a positive experience for Nathan. As he sat there on the couch looking at everything, I didn’t see a kid with cancer. I saw a kid having a great time hanging out with a professional hockey player.

After signing the hat for Nathan and posing for a picture with him, Riley told us about growing up in Saskatchewan and how he made his way to become a Worcester Sharks player. I asked him what he thought were the big differences between his small hometown and Worcester, something I figured Nathan (from “way up in Maine”) could relate to. He told us that when driving at home you might not see another car for a while but when you do, you wave to the person even if you don’t know them.

Mike shared a story about Riley speaking at a school before an auditorium full of fifth-graders. One of them asked Riley what he liked to do when he wasn’t playing hockey and his response was, “Well, I play a lot of video games.” The audience was soon full of smiling fifth-graders and teachers with open mouths of disbelief. Nathan and Riley then shared each other’s video game resumes and agreed that Guitar Hero was one of the best games recently released. Being a 33-year-old, I am not able to relate to such things…okay, so I actually own the game too and had just played it with Nathan the night before!

Although the visit was full of jokes, smiles, and laughter, at times the conversation hit on the more serious subject of “the big C.” Nathan explained to Riley and Mike what he had been through and what treatment lie ahead. Riley said he was growing his hair out to be part of “Locks of Love”, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to financially disadvantaged children under age 18 suffering from long-term medical hair loss from any diagnosis, and they were going to cut his hair on the ice at the end of the season.

Mike updated us on Thomas Greiss‘s pink Sharks goalie helmet that was being auctioned off on NHL.com, with proceeds (the final bid was $4,901.20) benefiting the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge.

As the evening of laughs and sharing continued, I saw this scene as one that encapsulates the double-sided cancer coin. On one side, I saw a 17-year-old who was going through something difficult that he didn’t ask for. I saw a kid with a disease that does not discriminate based on age, and someone going through a life-changing event. Most importantly, I saw a person who I could relate to with my own experience of being diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor when I was 18 and undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

On the other side, I saw someone I wanted to help as much as I could. I saw the enormous power of the human heart and the way cancer can bring out the best in people. I saw a professional hockey player and community leader acting not out of obligation, but out of caring and wanting to make a difference for someone in the midst of a serious illness. I could see the difference it made in Nathan’s face with every smile and laugh, and how positive experiences like these take a serious condition and give it hope. I saw how a simple visit can and does make all the difference, and felt blessed to be a part of it.

Somehow, I saw and felt a reason for me getting cancer when I was 18. I knew getting cancer was what put me in the position to give Nathan this experience, and I was grateful it had.

As Riley and Mike got up to leave, I knew saying “thank you” would not come close to fully expressing our appreciation. In life’s most trying times, we need heroes the most, and they certainly earned that title for themselves. Nathan arrived at Hope Lodge as a Bruins fan, but I know he left as a huge Sharks fan.

The American Cancer Society’s 22 Hope Lodges throughout the United States offer free, temporary housing facilities for cancer patients who are undergoing treatment. Hope Lodges are more than just a place to stay – they provide a home-like nurturing environment, so patients can get support from others going through the same experience. Hope Lodges not only increase access to care and provide a home away from home free of charge for the growing number of cancer patients and their families seeking treatment far from home, but they also serve as a community center for a variety of cancer initiatives, programs, and patient support programs.

To find a Hope Lodge or for up-to-the-minute cancer information day or night, please call the American Cancer Society toll free at 1-800-ACS-2345 or visit their Web site, www.cancer.org.