It’s not that the events did not happen; they just weren’t ready to be told.
Overcoming personal adversity requires time. It’s a process that takes maturity, tenacity, and courage at any age.
But when that individual is a 14-year-old student-athlete diagnosed with thyroid cancer, the circumstances become that much more inspiring.
“It’s easier to talk about it now,” said Brendan Dawson , a sophomore at St. Mark’s School in Southborough. “I just think that now, I’m over it.”
In the summer of 2011, the Medway teen was preparing for his freshman year at St. Mark’s. He was excited to form new friendships, meet the academic rigors of his new school, and try out for varsity sports teams, including soccer and hockey.
It wasn’t until he noticed a lump on his neck in June and brought it to the attention of his parents, that his thoughts shifted elsewhere. Dawson was referred to Children’s Hospital in Boston and, after a series of tests, learned he had thyroid cancer.
While the five-year survival rate is near 100 percent, curing thyroid cancer requires a thyroidectomy and postoperative treatment. As his parents, Dave and Melanie, learned about the disease and recovery, the family revisited Brendan’s looming school transition.
‘Whatever I think I want to do, I try and set my mind to it and do it.’
“To be honest, a decision had to be made — should we send him to St. Mark’s and let him start with everything that he’d been dealing with, or maybe try to postpone it a year,” Dave Dawson said.
Following the removal of his thyroid gland in late July and subsequent recovery time, Brendan enrolled at St. Mark’s. He attended preseason soccer training, made the varsity squad, and played the first few games of the season last fall.
But his radioactive iodine treatment — a procedure that destroys thyroid tissue not eliminated by surgery and any cancer that may have spread to the lymph nodes — was still ahead. It was scheduled for three weeks in October, and would require Dawson to drastically alter his diet. He also had to prepare for its draining side effects, including nausea and an upset stomach.
The procedures led Dawson to miss class time and, coupled with the change in diet, weakened him physically.
He left the soccer team to concentrate on his recovery.
“I had a few conversations with mom and dad and Brendan, and we decided that it was OK for the team to know, but to keep it quiet,” the boys’ varsity soccer coach, Neil Cifuentes, said of the decision to share the diagnosis with the other St. Mark’s players.
“I had a team meeting with the boys and explained the situation; it was a beautiful thing to see because the kids really rallied around Brendan.”
It’s a meeting that many players still vividly recall.
“It was a rainy day, it was kind of ominous,” said sophomore Neeraj Mahey , the starting goalie for the Lions. “They brought us in and Brendan wasn’t there,’’ Mahey said, and then Cifuentes told the team that Brendan had cancer. “It was a shock because no one could really tell.
“That just kind of dampened the mood of our season. But then once he came back . . . it was great and he was always full of energy last season . . . giving 100 percent even though with his medication and stuff he was really fatigued.”
A year later, Dawson largely remains the same person: affable, polite, hard-working, appreciative and ultra-competitive.
“I’ve often thought about what impact it was going to have on him as he was going through the treatment and so forth,” said Dave Dawson. “And looking back — it’s only been a year — I honestly don’t think it has changed him a whole lot.”
Those closest to Dawson recall with admiration the resolve that they witnessed. He never let his physical ailments derail him from fulfilling his commitments.
“To see a kid have the guts that he had to be going through a personal struggle, health struggle, and then at the same time doing his academics and doing well academically, playing for us and exerting himself physically,” Cifuentes said.
“And this boy had a smile on his face every time. And this boy battled through all these personal issues — a 14-year-old boy. It really inspired me.”
“He’s a good kid,” Mahey said. “He always has a positive attitude.”
Dawson readily admits that he is now mentally stronger. Little things don’t bother him as much. Now he is “just a kid trying to live like he dreams,” a statement he proudly displays through his Twitter handle.
“Whatever I think I want to do, I try and set my mind to it and do it,” he said.
One dream is to play hockey for Boston College; he was one of two freshmen to earn a spot on the St. Mark’s varsity squad last winter.
“My dad and mom went to BC and I always go over there for the games,” Dawson said. “Down the road I would like to play college hockey, if that is even realistic.”
At 5-foot-4, and 125 pounds, Brendan awaits the growth spurt he knows he will need to achieve his dream. For now, he can only improve the skills he developed while playing in the Eastern Hockey Federation for the Minuteman Flames.
“He’s that kind of perservering player,” said Flames coach Larue Renfroe. “That’s probably the most important word in the English dictionaryfor hockey players: to have perservance.” On the soccer pitch, he is serving in a utility role, subbing in at right and left midfield.
He said he is grateful for the immense support he received from his family, including his two brothers (Andrew , 17, and Patrick , 13) and sister (Emily , 11), friends, teachers, and teammates.
He remains humbled that his efforts were recognized last year with the Independent School League’s Goodband Award, an honor named after longtime Belmont Hill School soccer coach Cliff Goodband , for courageously facing adversity.
“Everyone on the team just wanted to see him succeed,’’ Mahey said.
All of those events are in the past.
The fortitude Dawson summoned to beat cancer is now focused on the present, helping the St. Mark’s soccer team to a winning record (the Lions were 2-4-2 after a 4-1 win over Roxbury Latin on Wednesday), and thinking of the future — perhaps one day donning a hockey sweater at Boston College.Paul Lazdowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.