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Kick it, Colin: Donaldsons say soccer saved their son

By Elizabeth Cook
elizabeth.cook@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Colin Donaldson was playing his second soccer match of the day one Sunday in April when his parents, Seamus and Traci Donaldson, noticed he was off.

An all-in soccer player since the age of 7, Colin wasn’t playing up to his usual level with the Lake Norman Soccer Club that afternoon.

Looking back, he remembers feeling full and tired; he thought he might have eaten too much.

As the 13-year-old played, his parents caught a glimpse of Colin from a side angle and saw something that wasn’t supposed to be there — a bulge under his jersey, in his abdomen.

“Gosh, Traci,” Seamus said. “Something doesn’t look right.”

Within less than 24 hours, Colin would be diagnosed with cancer. Two days later, the Donaldsons learned he was in Stage 4 of a type of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Burkitt’s Disease. Soon he would begin a chemotherapy regimen to flush the huge tumor out of his system and knock out any cells that might have migrated through his body.

As the chemo progressed, Colin would get sores in his mouth and throat, go through hours of nausea, fever and pain, lose his hair and drop down to 86 pounds.

The tumor shrank and the treatment did its work. On Aug. 24, Colin’s latest PET scan showed no remaining cancer, the Donaldsons are relieved to say.

Seamus and Traci are thankful for the prayers and support that buoyed them up during the storm. And they remember what triggered the scared trip to the pediatric clinic in the first place.

Soccer saved Colin’s life, they both say.

•   •   •

The Donaldsons later learned the exertion of playing soccer that Sunday may be what pushed Colin’s tumor out so that it suddenly was so pronounced.

Looking back, they realized Colin showed symptoms on a trip they’d taken to Dublin, Ireland, to celebrate the 80th birthday of Seamus’ father, Art.

Colin had a bout of profuse night sweats on the trip and looked a little jaundiced one day, Seamus says.

Traci noticed as she put her arm around him while posing for a photo once that Colin’s abdomen was very tight — muscular, she thought.

And as they drove toward home from a New York airport and stopped in Hershey, Pa., Colin complained that his back hurt.

Colin is not a complainer.

“Now when we look back upon it,” Seamus says,  “and we add up those symptoms, it equals what it is.”

Symptoms of Burkitt’s Lymphoma include abdominal swelling, fatigue and night sweats.

The protrusion alone was enough to set off alarms for the Donaldsons that Sunday, April 8. They rushed back to Salisbury hoping Colin could be seen at an urgent care clinic, but when they got there it was closed.

“We were one minute late,” Colin says.

They resolved to take him to a pediatrician early the next day, but they were scared. That night, they had Colin sleep with them.

Monday morning they took Colin to Salisbury Pediatric Associates and saw Dr. Ashley Ferguson. She examined Colin and said she wanted to bring in another doctor, Ed Cody.

Then they called in another doctor, Wayne Koontz.

And then another doctor was brought in, Chris Magryta.

Magryta soon took Seamus and Traci aside and said they believed Colin had cancer of some kind. One of the doctors broke the news to Colin.

“My first question was if I could play soccer again,” Colin says. But he knew enough about chemo to be scared.

Traci remembers reacting with a feeling of “thanks but no thanks.” That wasn’t the diagnosis they wanted. “It just seemed too unbelievable,” she says.

Colin’s soccer team was scheduled to play in Mooresville, Raleigh and Wilmington that week. “He can’t have cancer,” Traci remembers thinking. “He’s got three soccer games …

“It’s weird how your mind processes things, or doesn’t.”

The preoccupation with soccer may have been a godsend, the Donaldsons now say. Without Colin’s constant play and his parents watching his every move, “we may have not caught it,” Seamus says.

•   •   •

They took Colin from the pediatric clinic straight to Novant Health Rowan Medical Center for a CT scan. Colin had to wait an hour after drinking the contrast fluid before undergoing the scan — an excruciating wait for all three of them.

“We were all silent. We didn’t even know what to say to each other,” Traci says.

Then they went home and waited more.

Magryta called at 2 p.m. and said he was coming over. He sat at the kitchen table with Seamus and Traci and said their son had cancerous tumors that had metastasized. He recommended they go to the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. The Charlotte clinic treats children with cancer and a wide range of blood disorders.

They asked about making an appointment.

“No,” Seamus recalls Magryta saying, “you need to go right now. Today. They’re ready for you. I’ve already called them.”

In the midst of it all, Seamus went and picked up Colin’s younger sister, Kate, from school and told her what was going on. She was very upset, as they all were.

Colin called his best friend, Ben Childress, to let him know.

Traci says the news was alarming, but she and Seamus were comforted by the fact that they could do something about it immediately.

Soon they understood the urgency. Colin had Burkitt’s, “the fastest-growing cancer there is,” Seamus says.

•   •   •

Burkitt’s was identified by an Irish-born surgeon, Dr. Denis Burkitt, who identified a type of malignancy in 1958 that was common among children in Africa and became known as Burkitt’s Lymphoma.

While African children usually get Burkitt’s tumors in the jaw, in the United States the disease tends to affect the abdomen. Burkitt’s is also relatively rare in the U.S., with about 300 pediatric cases diagnosed each year.

Caught in time and treated with intensive chemotherapy, Burkitt’s cure rate is about 90 percent, according to research reported in The Lancet.

But its aggressiveness is hard to overstate.

•   •   •

Traci shows results of Colin’s scans on her phone. The April 9 scan shows a large mass pushing his heart and other organs up, out of position.

A June 29 scan shows everything back to normal.

In between those two scans — and after — Colin endured the roughest period of his life.

His liver was most involved in the tumor, Seamus says. The surgery to take a biopsy of the liver and put a port in his chest  went smoothly, but the recovery put Colin in intensive care for five days. His heart rate skyrocketed and he had trouble breathing.

“Because his body was so full of disease, I think that surgery was harder on him than maybe it would have been otherwise,” Traci says.

Also affected were his kidneys, adrenal glands and gall bladder.

Drugs effectively “melted” Colin’s tumors. Other cancer tumors are slow-growing and tough, like an oak tree, Seamus says. Burkitt’s tumors are comparable to a Bradford pear tree — fast-growing but easily knocked down.

The meds broke down the tumors, which were supposed to wash out in urine. That meant the diseased kidneys had to be able to flush it all out, something that looked iffy.

The doctors had Colin pumped up with fluids; he went from 103 pounds to 113, tight as a tick. Finally, the kidneys started processing.

As they monitored Colin’s output, Seamus says, they could see the dead cancer cells in the urine.

“It was unbelievable,” he says.

The lymphoma had not reached his bone marrow or his central nervous system, but doctors did find a tumor on his spine — hence the back pain. The cancer hadn’t crossed the blood-brain barrier, but doctors treated the tumor as though it had because that could happen at any moment, Seamus says.

That meant Colin had 15 to 20 injections of chemo into his spinal column.

“Of all the things, he didn’t seem to mind the lumbar punctures too much,” Traci says.

Colin says that was because he was asleep.

Sleep was hard to come by in the hospital.

The chemo administered through an IV made Colin very ill after the first few treatments. In all he went through six rounds, expecting a week in the hospital for the chemo and two weeks at home for each round. But any time he developed a fever, which he inevitably did, he had to return to the hospital to avoid possible infection. And the fourth treatment just about did him in.

•    •    •

Meanwhile, back in Salisbury and points beyond, the Donaldsons’ friends and relatives launched volleys of prayers and support.

Less than 10 days after Colin went to Salisbury Pediatric Associates, friends at Sacred Heart Catholic School had designed and distributed green bracelets that said “KICK IT, COLIN!”

Buddy Bill Webb had shirts printed with Colin’s Top 10 — foods, phrases and games he likes, such as carrots, Fortnight and The Carlton.

Coaches and captains of the UNC Charlotte Men’s Soccer Team visited Colin in the hospital. “He was over the moon!” Traci posted on their CaringBridge page.

Colin returned home from his first hospital stay to find the house decorated. “He turned around after reading the messages and said, ‘I can’t stop smiling,'” Traci wrote.

With his hair beginning to fall out, Colin decided to have all his hair buzzed off on May 3, and Seamus did too — which greatly amused Colin.

Colin celebrated his 14th birthday on May 28 with relatives and friends who surprised him in the hospital’s small auditorium. Colin said the highlights were watching “Star Wars” and walking around without his IV pole, “which was nice.”

He was able to participate in 8th grade graduation in early June.

And then there was soccer.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation arranged for Colin and family to see his favorite soccer player and his favorite team — 19-year-old Christian Pulisic of the German club, Borussia Dortmund — compete in Charlotte against Liverpool in the International Champions Cup.

Pulisic, who is from Hershey, Pa., is the youngest player to represent the U.S. senior national team in a FIFA World Cup qualifier.

Colin got to help with the coin flip before the game.

After the match, Pulisic jogged over to the Donaldsons, pulled off his sweaty jersey and had Colin hold it up. Pulisic signed the jersey and gave it to him. Colin also received a soccer ball signed by all the players.

“There have been a lot of rays of sunshine coming through the clouds,” Seamus says.

•   •   •

Here’s what Colin loves about soccer. “It’s nonstop and I’m good at it.”

At 99 pounds now, he estimates he’s at about 25 percent of his pre-illness strength. He’s working to build that up with a treadmill and weights at home.

He sat with the Salisbury High JV soccer team at a game Wednesday night, but he’s not ready to play yet. That may come in the spring.

Because his immunity is low, Colin did not start school with his friends in Salisbury’s freshman class. Teachers in the homebound program are working with him now and, if all goes well, he’ll join his classmates in October.

It takes a good bit of healing to recover from the lymphoma and the treatment he’s been through.

And it brings a lot of deep thought.

“I think this has brought me closer to God, definitely,” Colin says. He sends up prayers of thanks throughout the day, he says.

He did not get mad at God, he says, “not really.”

He remembers a moment in church, in seventh grade or early eighth grade, when he wondered what he would do if something bad happened to someone in his family. “I remember silently praying to God that if it did happen, that it would happen to me,” he says.

He didn’t expect that to happen so soon.

Seamus says on one of the days when they knew he had cancer but not what kind, Colin surprised them by turning to Traci and saying, “Mom, I’m just so glad it’s me and not you or Dad or Kate.”

Why is he glad?

“I guess I’d rather see myself hurt than them.”

But his serious expression shifts to a smile on other subjects, like pets — the family has a cat named Tic Tac and geriatric hermit crab called Francis (all of 2 years old).

His favorite foods are wings, carrots and macaroni and cheese.

And while he might like to be an architect some day — he says he’s pretty good at math — that doesn’t top the list of things he’d like to do when he grows up.

“Play soccer would probably be my No. 1,” Colin says.

No surprise there. Just gratitude.

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