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Pesce's cancer battle adds meaning to diploma

POSTED May 29, 2011
BY Rick Wilson
Twitter: @scribewilson

                          Pesce's cancer battle adds meaning to diploma 

           THOMASTON – Less than a month from now, June 21 to be exact, Nick Pesce will walk across the stage in the Thomaston High School auditorium, his infectious and ever-present smile in full bloom, pick up his diploma and say good-bye to his high school days.

            Pesce, a rugged basketball player, baseball player and golfer at THS,  is a big guy at 6-foot-2, 190 lbs. or so and the smile is bigger than most. It is a Pesce trademark that reaches out to you and says life is pretty good. On this night of smiles it will be one of many, but none will loom and shine larger.

            As it should be. His journey to the stage has been different than most. There was no guarantee that Pesce would get there or be here. He will revel in the night just as he does the days. All the days.

            It was nothing much, a tickle in the throat and some coughing. No big deal except that it didn’t want to go away. For a month in a half in February and March of 2009, Nick Pesce tried to shake the hack with inhalers and prednisone with little luck.

            Life went on and so did the cough.  Finally, doctors ordered a chest x-ray and a CAT scan. Later that day doctors called Nick’s dad, Nick, and life suddenly took a permanent change.

            “Dad told me something was wrong and we had to go to the hospital. It could be cancer,” Pesce said.

            Pesce was all of 15-years old on that March day and his world was rocked.

            “I was very upset, I thought I was going to die,” Pesce said. “It was such a hectic day. I didn’t know what was going on.”

            That night at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center another CAT scan was done. Then the next day at Hartford Hospital there was a lung biopsy and bone marrow extraction. Temporary uncertainty was now one with pain.

            “For the lung biopsy they couldn’t sedate me because the tumor was near the lungs an heart. They numb you up but it is a big needle through the back,” Pesce described. The bone marrow extraction was the most painful thing I’ve ever been through. They stick a needle right in the bone and it’s most painful when they pull it out. It’s like a syringe works.”

            Pesce stayed overnight while the results were studied. The bomb came the next day as doctors talked with Nick and his parents, putting a chill in their world.

            CANCER – Stage II Hodgkin’s-Lymphoma (Stage IV is the worst).

            Pesce knew cancer. He didn’t know about Hodgkins-Lymphoma, they had to explain it to him. Most 15-year olds aren’t up on ways your life can be snuffed out. He was more concerned with his rebounding and shooting for his Golden Bears. Sophomores in high school think about living and now Pesce was thinking about dying.

            Youth is marked by resiliency and the doctors told Pesce that the recovery rate was 90 percent. He would latch on to that. But there is uncertainty too and that would be a constant companion even today.

            Nervous and scared Pesce began his treatment the next day, March 27. A day that will hang with him when young turns to old. At CCMC, he began a three-week engagement with Chemotherapy. Every other day he received a cycle of drugs that kicked the innocence out of his body.

            “I was miserable – very sick, tired and weak,” Pesce said. “They gave me strong doses of medicine to help me deal with the chemo but it made me feel weaker. I was bed-ridden.”

            Pesce’s mother, Nancy, would get him up to walk around the wing of the hospital for exercise. The idea that days are 24 hours long was a lie. They dragged on. And on. Thank god for the NCAA Tournament and NBA playoffs on television which offered a release.

            After three weeks, Pesce was finally able to go home. And Dorothy was right, home is where the heart is. You can draw strength from your own bed and the security that familiarity breeds. Miserable feels better at home.

            “I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t even walk upstairs,” Pesce said. “I was really depressed. A couple of times I was really sick and I had to go and get two blood transfusions because my blood count was so low. I was still thinking about dying.”   

            The routine changed. For the next two months Nick would go back to CCMC for more chemo treatments on Fridays. He would come home and nurses would come in the house to help out. There were shots needed to elevate his white blood count.

            On Tuesdays it was back to the CCMC for blood checks then back home. Then back to CCMC on Friday for a strong dose of chemo and a stay for the weekend. It was a constant schedule.

            Cancer is tough foe and chemo a cranky friend at best. It can cure, but in order to make the body better it has to break it down. Pesce took the punches and body wearied. He went through the hair thing, one morning waking up with a whole chunk of his head covering on the pillow, unattached to his head. He lost most of his eyebrows.

            It didn’t bother him much as he says, “I had other things to worry about.”

            He also had and has a terrific support system starting with his mom and dad. Brother Anthony home from college was an immeasurable source of inspiration. People like life-long resident Jay Fredlund, a big man with a strong faith, came by. Fredlund’s wife, Cathy, went through her own battle with cancer. Don Gordon brought movies to watch.

            Close friends Mitch Cleveland, Gabe Russo, Eric April and Dylan O’Brien, all of whom will grace the graduation stage with him, were consistent visitors. The baseball team became the bald Bears, shaving their respective domes in support.

            Nick’s last treatment was June 5, 2009. He spent the summer getting stronger as his body regrouped. He got outside and gradually began to exercise. By the time school started he was back along with his hair.

            Nick needs to go five years before he is considered cured. Now he is considered in remission. He goes back for a checkup every three months which will soon switch to six months and then a year.

            He admits the fear is still there if not as consistently.

            “Every time I go back and they do a CAT scan and PET scan (similar to an MRI) I think about it. For the 45 minutes they do the test, I think about it,” Pesce said.

            You take a look at Nick Pesce these days and the picture obscures the journey. It gives no detail of the road taken . Strong, good natured, athletic, honor roll, big smile, on the cusp of the next chapter of his life he portrays much the happy soon-to-be graduate who has enjoyed the past and hungers for the future.

            All true with a twist. Behind the smile and the typical teen enjoying life, he is older. He has learned. He has tangled with tragedy and understands about having a second chance. He is mentally stronger, he appreciates things he never did before like science class.

            Behind the smile Nick Pesce knows about living, more than people his age should. Graduation will bring a deserving smile. It is a big step, a major accomplishment.  But his smile carries more. It should. It is the smile of life and how good it is to be here.             




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