In the Summer of 2014, I had a small tumor removed from my left tibia.  I first noticed the tumor in grade eight due to the excruciating pain it caused when it was touched or bumped; if something ever came into contact with it, which was quite often, I wasn’t able to walk for several days. After bringing it to my parents’ attention, we immediately went to see our family doctor. They ran multiple tests and came to the conclusion that it was nothing to worry about and that I would simply have to live with it. This was a huge problem for me because it was becoming an obstacle in my everyday life, especially in hockey. Furthermore, this was taking place during my first year with the Northstars, which was a crucial time in my career in terms of development. My abilities on the ice reached a plateau as I was afraid to put myself in situations outside of my comfort zones due to the pain this “spot” would bring me. A few years went by, and I continued playing with the Northstars, and the tumor continued to grow and become more and more painful. It finally reached the point where I demanded to have it further examined and hopefully have it removed. Finally, in grade eleven, I was referred to an Orthopedic Surgeon at the Children’s Hospital. The surgeon gave me some of the best news I had ever received: the tumor was not cancerous, and I could have it removed with a very minor procedure. The idea of it being cancer surprisingly never even crossed my mind, however I was relieved to hear that it was benign, and I was even more relieved that it was going to be removed.

After having the tumor removed, life became so much easier. I could partake in all of the activities I loved without the terrible pain. It was amazing to put on my shin pads and skates without the immense discomfort that I previously had. Playing hockey became so much more enjoyable, and my game elevated more than I thought it ever could. In the Summer of 2014, just shortly before the Midget AAA tryouts, my skills on the ice became so much more refined and I felt confident that I could play at that level.

September came, and I was just starting my senior year of high school and had just fulfilled one of my life long goals of making the Calgary Northstars Midget AAA team. The state I was in was nothing short of euphoric, and I was so excited and optimistic about the opportunities that both the school year and the hockey season would bring, and for the first time in my life, I felt like my future was starting to take shape.

It was near the end of the month when I received an unexpected call from the surgeon who removed my tumor. He wanted me to come in to discuss some things they had discovered in the biopsy following the surgery. I was very confused as to why because, as previously mentioned, the doctors confidently assured me that it was nothing to worry about. I entered the room at the hospital with my parents where we found the surgeon and two other doctors with serious expressions on their faces. After asking why I was brought in, the surgeon informed me that the biopsy of the tumor had revealed a high cell count of Synovial Sarcoma. I had no idea what that even meant. He further explained that Synovial Sarcoma is a very aggressive soft tissue cancer. The room went silent, and I could feel the blood drain from my face and my heart sink into my stomach. After gathering my thoughts, I asked him what exactly that meant for me, and all I can remember from his response to that question was the word “chemotherapy”. My mom broke down into tears, and my dad tried desperately to console her. And there I was, the calmest in the room. I didn’t know how to respond. The surgeon continued on by explaining what the next steps were. He told us he was going to refer us to an Orthopedic Oncologist at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. That day was easily the hardest day of mine and my family’s life.

The room went silent, and I could feel the blood drain from my face and my heart sink into my stomach

Within the next few days, I was off to meet the surgeon at Tom Baker. I was exceptionally nervous going there as I didn’t know what to expect for the next steps in the medical procedure. My parents and I were told that I would have to undergo chemotherapy, radiation, and another, much more complicated surgery that could possibly be career ending. After just making the Northstars, hearing this news was crippling. As soon as I left the room, that’s when it hit me, and I realized just how serious it was. All I could think of was the impact that this was going to have on my academics and my hockey career. Later that night, I broke down. I felt like it wasn’t even real. That state of euphoria that I was previously in had turned to one of devastation. I have faced a lot of adversity in my day with both school and hockey, but this was a whole new level.

A few days later, I received word that I would begin chemotherapy and radiation in early November, and that the surgery would take place in January – right in the middle of the hockey season and when my grade twelve diplomas were. One thing that was nice was that I was told that I would be able to play hockey during the time between the chemo and my surgery, provided that I felt physically able to.

I continued going to school and playing hockey, but everyday life became so difficult. I was constantly burdened with extremely negative thoughts, and the future that I thought was starting to solidify had become so uncertain. “How much longer am I going to live?”, “Is this the end for me?”, “I’m not even going to get to live long enough to graduate high school”. These are some of the thoughts that constantly ran through my head.

I kept the news to myself for the first couple days because I didn’t exactly know how to tell people. I also hesitated because I didn’t want anyone to think of me any differently, and I feared that as soon as people found out, they would pity me or no longer look at me the same. However, the longer I went without telling people, the more pessimistic and alone I felt. This led me to decide that I wanted to tell my close friends as well as the Northstars.

the longer I went without telling people, the more pessimistic and alone I felt

I initially brought it up to the coaching and management staff who were quite shocked by the news themselves. Having said that, they showed great support and made me feel very comfortable about it, and they encouraged me to tell the rest of the team as soon as possible so we decided that at the end of the next practice I would explain my situation to my teammates. The next practice came, and while I was on the ice, I was trying to figure out how to best tell everyone. At the end of the practice, I got everyone’s attention and told them I had something to discuss with them. I remember being really nervous. It took every ounce of courage that I had to keep it together and tell my teammates that I would soon be undergoing cancer treatment and that the next few games that I would play could very well be my last. I remember how the energy in the room changed as I was telling the story. Everyone looked like they were in such disbelief. After explaining all of the details, I wanted to make it clear to the team that I didn’t want to be treated any differently because of it. I didn’t want special treatment of any kind. I didn’t want people to be afraid to joke around with me or chirp me, I didn’t want more or less ice time, I didn’t want the coaches to be afraid to be hard on me, I just wanted things to continue on just as they were before. Afterwards, some of the guys had a few questions for me regarding the treatment and surgery, and all of them made it very clear that I was not alone and that they would be by my side the entire journey. It’s hard to put into words how that made me feel. That was the first time I felt any sort of positivity toward the whole thing; it was my first glimpse of hope.

When I left the rink that night, I was so relieved. It felt amazing to tell everyone and see how the whole team didn’t hesitate to give me their unconditional support. Despite all of the negativity that I was surrounded in, I remember that being one of the happiest nights.

The next few weeks went by, and school and hockey both had their ups and downs. Some days I felt great; others were filled with pessimism. It was very difficult to stay positive, but I tried my hardest to do so. November third came, and it was time for me to begin chemotherapy and radiation. I had to do three consecutive days of chemotherapy, followed by ten consecutive days of radiation. During that time I spent in the hospital, I realized how much of an impact the treatment was going to have on my grades. As previously mentioned, I was in grade twelve, which was the most important year especially because I was very eager to study engineering in university, which is very competitive and requires a high grade average. Missing a single day of grade twelve puts you significantly behind, and I was about to miss thirteen. I remember feeling very defeated at the thought of not being able to attend university or having to redo grade twelve.

I remember that being one of the happiest nights

While I was in the hospital, I did everything I could to keep up with school. I had my friends send me all of the notes, I tried to complete most of the homework and assignments, but it began to feel impossible. I could feel the chemotherapy starting to take its toll, and each day became more and more difficult. I began to lose my appetite, and it was like I couldn’t really think straight anymore, and on top of all of the physical stress my body was being put through, I felt like I was starting to deteriorate mentally. I eventually gave up on school at one point. It became so difficult to do any work, and I basically accepted defeat. School seemed less and less important the more I felt like I was fighting for my life.

It was now near the end of November and I finally finished the chemotherapy and radiation, and I was back at home. I could still feel like side effects of the drugs, but each day got a little bit better. I was back at school and back on the ice for a short time. My grades had already suffered a significant amount, however my high school was able to have me exempted from the diploma exams that would take place in January. It was not long after this that one of the hardest things I had ever experienced happened – I began losing my hair. I knew it was coming, but once it did, everything seemed like it was falling apart. I started having to wear a toque to school, which was not easy to do as a seventeen year old who’s high school graduation was not far away. All of my classmates and friends were worried about what they were going to wear to grad or who they were going to take, and I wasn’t sure I would even be around.

After going through the initial disappointment of losing my hair, I decided that instead of feeling sorry for myself that I wanted to do something to give back to the community and help others who might be going through something similar. I decided to do a head-shaving fundraiser to raise money for the Kids Cancer Care Foundation. I brought the idea up to my team, and they did not hesitate to rally behind me. We made a fun event out of it. We all got together and shaved our heads, and all of the parents and coaches donated to the fundraiser. Although I knew the team was by my side from the moment that I told them the news, this made us a family. I will never forget the feeling that I had when I watched my team mates shave their heads for me. It gave me the confidence and the strength that I needed to feel like I actually had a chance at beating cancer.

The fundraiser eventually got the attention of the media, and I had newspapers wanting to do interviews with my team and me. More and more people donated, and we ended up raising over eight-thousand-dollars for the Foundation. I was receiving support from people I didn’t even know as well as other teams in the league. It was something special, and it shows how amazing the hockey community is in supporting one another in difficult times. January came, and it was time for my surgery. Those last few games I played in early January, I made sure to give it my all, because I knew they might be my last.

I will never forget the feeling that I had when I watched my team mates shave their heads for me. It gave me the confidence and the strength that I needed to feel like I actually had a chance at beating cancer.

The surgery, which consisted of both orthopedic and plastic operations, kept me in the hospital for eight days. During that time, I had so many visitors including friends, family, teammates, coaches, and classmates, which made the experience a much more positive one. The doctors informed me that they were going to perform a biopsy on the piece of surrounding tissue they had removed, and the results of that would dictate what the next steps were. After I got out of the hospital, I was on crutches until the end of January. Without having to write my diplomas, I was able to recover without having to worry about school. I finally received a call from the doctors a few weeks after being at home, and they told me that they had the results of the biopsy and they needed me to come in. My parents and I went to the appointment, all filled with fear. The surgeon told us that the surrounding tissue that they removed proved to be clear margins. In other words, the cancer had not yet spread past the tissue they removed, so it likely had not spread to any other parts of the body. He then told us that I would not require any further treatment as of then, and that besides being regularly monitored, that I could basically go back to my regular life. He told me that I still wouldn’t be able to play hockey for quite a long time due to the weakness of my tibia and tenderness of the plastic surgery sites, but that I could begin walking again when I felt that I could. This was some of the best news that we could get. I remember being in such disbelief and feeling so grateful when I realized that I beat the cancer.

It was now the middle of February, and the second semester of school was starting. I still was not able to walk completely on my own, but I got stronger each day. I was able to go watch my teammates play the rest of the season, which I was so grateful for. It felt like life was slowly going back to normal. I was always worried that the cancer would return or that it had spread to another part of my body, but overall, I felt pretty good both mentally and physically.

The second semester of school felt like a fresh start. I had all new classes, and I knew I was going to be able to focus on them without the constant fear that the cancer brought me. My first semester grades were fairly poor, but I was determined to raise my average in the new semester and still try to get into engineering. Also, for the first time of the school year, I was able to join my friends and classmates in the excitement of graduation.

The semester went by quite fast. I was still limping quite a bit, I still had appointments at Tom Baker every now and then for routine check-ups, and my surgical sites still required a significant amount of care, but things were good. I was doing really well in school, I got to support my team in the playoffs, and I got to fully experience my high school graduation.

I could basically go back to my regular life

Shortly after graduation, I received word from the University of Calgary that I was not admitted into the engineering program, however my average was high enough that I was admitted into their general studies program. Although I was disappointed, I was still so grateful that I had the opportunity to go to university, and I made it a goal of mine to transfer into the engineering program after my first year as an undeclared major. In my first year, I applied for the engineering program once again, and I worked incredibly hard to achieve a GPA that would be high enough to get in. In June 2016, just after my first year, I was admitted into engineering.

This brings me to present day. I am now in my third year of mechanical engineering at the University of Calgary, and I just landed an internship which will begin this upcoming May. I still return to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre for routine check-ups every six months, but the doctors are confident that I will remain healthy in the upcoming future. I no longer am a hockey player, but I am lucky enough to be as active as I once was.

Looking back and reflecting on my experience with cancer, it was definitely the most humbling experience that I have ever had. It is incredible to know how much of a difference your friends, family, and even strangers can make when you are going through difficult times and when the future seems so uncertain. I may no longer be a hockey player, but I will never forget the role the hockey community played throughout my treatment and recovery, and I will always remember to dedicate myself to doing the same for others in their times of need. 

– Shadee Merhi

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