Tuesday, January 3, 2017

BC High's Spencer Riley Beats Cancer to Return to the Court

By Matt Feld (@mattyfeld612)

On December 22nd, prior to BC High’s first home game against Boston Cathedral, Eagles assistant coach Thomas Smith tapped each player on the shoulder one by one as they walked into the gym.

Smith asked them all to take a green ribbon and pin it to the top left corner of their warm-up shirt. The last to walk in was the one for whom the ribbons were meant to honor – Spencer Riley, a junior who had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma last April.

A simple message was passed on from Smith to Riley, “We’re all thinking of you and we’re all playing for you.”

BC High captain Carl Pierre offered his own words of encouragement.

“(Spencer) is an inspiration to all of us,” said Pierre. “It’s just about the will to keep battling. To hang in there, to see him back out there playing with us, it brings a smile to all of our faces.”

Riley went out and scored a career-high eight first quarter points, including knocking down his first two three pointers of the season.

For the Hingham native, his entire recovery process had finally come full circle.

Initial Diagnosis

Riley spent his freshman year at Hingham High School, already playing as a member of the varsity team.

Midway through the school year, with the Harbormen having an unsuccessful season and his grades in the classroom dropping, Riley’s parents began looking at private schools.

Riley’s father, who attended Fairfield Prep - a Jesuit school in Connecticut - suggested BC High, and Spencer promptly applied.

Upon acceptance, Riley began attending the Eagles’ summer league games at Braintree High and BC High coach Bill Loughnane became quickly enamored with the forward.

A lanky but quick stretch-four with potential on both sides of the ball, he was someone who Loughnane knew could fit perfectly into his defense-first style of play.

Overall, Riley had a successful sophomore season off the bench for BC High. Often called upon when the Eagles were struggling for offense, Riley played a key role in the Eagles' south sectional quarterfinals come-from behind win over Needham. In that game Riley did the dirty work, grabbing 11 total rebounds to go with four assists.

BC High fell in their next tournament game to Newton North and in the weeks to come, Riley began to feel uncomfortable.

While many of his teammates were still getting over the end of their season, Riley was feeling an increasing pain in his right abdomen as the calendar turned to April.

A soft-spoken kid who prefers to keep things inside, he hid his symptoms in their early stages.

They soon became so unbearable, however, that he finally told his mother and the two went to South Shore Hospital in search of answers.

At first, Riley’s pains were simply considered a side effect of various stomach problems.

“We went to a couple of doctors and they thought it was simply constipation,” said Riley. “In April we went to a gastroenterologist who thought it was irritable bowel syndrome.”

A proceeding MRI was conducted in hopes of finding the root cause.

What was discovered, instead, was far worse.

Through the MRI, doctors discovered a tumor located inside Riley’s right abdomen. Two surgical procedures immediately followed to determine whether or not the tumor was in fact cancerous.

Riley spent the next six days in the hospital recovering from surgery. With his mother by his side, the doctor who performed the operation finally came in with the unthinkable news.

“Towards the end of my recovery from the surgery, they came in and told me,” recalled Riley. “They told me I had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I guess it was nice they told me in person – that’s better than someone telling you that over the phone.”

Coping with Treatment

Within days, Riley began treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital.

BC High told him to not worry about the remaining two months of the school year, allowing him to focus on only one thing: His upcoming recovery.

As he waited to see how many rounds of chemotherapy would be required, Riley used his surroundings to help soften the blow of his own situation.

“When you’re in the hospital it opens your eyes,” said Riley. “Especially when you’re in the pediatric section, you see all these kids who are in there for months and even years. I saw all those kids and I thought, ‘sure, obviously something terrible is going on with me, but I have a chance to be ok.’ Not everyone in there can say that.”

The information sent Riley’s way continued to worsen.

His family was told prior to the start of treatment that Spencer would have to go through either two or four rounds of chemotherapy.

Spencer ended up requiring four.

The rounds were grueling. A cycle began to form that consisted of a week of medicinal injections in the hospital, followed by two weeks at home, mostly in bed.

Due to the chemotherapy, Riley lost his hair and a total of 25 pounds.

For the most part, he was particular about the people with whom he chose to share the details of his situation. Initially he only told his closest friends, and kept them informed throughout his treatment.

Particularly tough on Riley, though, was the fact that no one in his immediate family could relate to what he was going through. No one that he knew had ever experienced the pain and challenge of a cancer diagnosis.  This made it particularly difficult for him to formulate his thoughts.

As a result, he began writing a journal.

“I used a journal for me to vent,” said Riley. “I keep most of my thoughts inside and that was nice to keep something of that nature. It allowed me to write out everything I was feeling emotionally and physically. It gives me something to look at in a few years to realize what I had to go through.”

Additionally, Riley used other sources of entertainment, including picking up an affection for reading, listening to music, and watching movies.

Over the summer, as his treatment began to slowly wind down, the rising junior even attended a handful of the Eagles’ summer workouts that took place at BC High.

He would walk in and just quietly sit up in the bleachers, helplessly watching his fellow teammates work on their jump shots, ball handling, and athleticism.

Once they finished up, Riley would step out onto the court and pick up a basketball before chucking a handful toward the basket.

“I would take a couple a shots and just throw the ball at the rim,” said Riley laughing. “I really couldn’t do much else.”

Finally Cleared

While in the hospital, Riley received visits from his immediate family, aunts, uncles, his varsity basketball coaches, teammates, and friends.
Additionally, Riley also received letters of support from members of the BC High community, including his teachers, classmates, and alumni of the basketball program.

To help find someone who understood his situation, Riley reached out to a co-worker of a family friend who had Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a kid.

“I asked him for a couple of helpful pointers to help me get through the chemotherapy,” said Riley. “A lot of people at (Children’s) know what’s going on, so they were there to talk to and reach out to.”

What kept Riley going through it all, however, was his understanding that come the winter, he was going to be back out on the basketball court with all his closest friends.

Even when being initially diagnosed, the doctors indicated to Riley that their greatest concerns were not in the long term, but in the complications that could come with the first rounds of chemotherapy.

Once the final days of his treatment came around in the middle of July, Riley knew it wouldn’t be long until his life was officially back to normal.

Finally, after nearly 12 weeks of continuous and intense medical care, Riley was officially declared “cancer-free” on July 29th, and was released from the hospital a few days later.

Giving Back

Upon returning to school in the fall, Riley found solace in being able to return to the same daily activities that his classmates participated in – even the increased amount of schoolwork.

Two weeks into the year, Riley went down to the gym and picked up a basketball. Coach Loughnane walked in and got a look at Riley’s first shot – a three pointer that swished through the net.

When not playing basketball in preparation for the winter season, Riley was making plans to launch a club designed to help raise awareness and provide resources to kids who are going through similar situations.

With the help of the school and his family, Riley held the club’s first meeting prior to the BC High’s winter break, and plans on putting together a 5K in the spring.

And when the BC High Eagles opened their regular season on December 13th against Needham, Riley was there getting the start in his first game back from Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, facing off against the same team that brought out the best in him during his sophomore season.

Although his recovery has been successful, there have been bumps in the road. Riley struggles staying on the court for extended periods of time, still getting used to the fast pace at which Loughnane likes to play.

“It’s been a little tough, trying to get my wind back, but quite frankly I am just happy to be out there,” a relieved Riley noted. “We have a terrific team this year with guys like Carl (Pierre) and Travis (Evee), so just being out there is awesome.”

So, when Loughnane and Smith decided to do something to honor Riley before the Eagles' first home game right before Christmas, they elected to do it the way they knew he would like it.

There was no large announcement over the public address system, and there was no pre-game “ceremony.” All that occurred was just a small acknowledgement, via the ribbons (lime green for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma) on each of his teammates’ shirts, that they were proud to stand with him.

As Smith pulled the pin out of a plastic bag and showed it to Riley, Riley displayed his notorious slight but ever so cheerful smile – a sign that he had finally conquered the unthinkable.

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