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Conley inspires Franklin with cancer fight

When Grace Conley takes a pill each night before she falls asleep, she knows the next day has a chance to be dreadful.

The pill contains her chemotherapy treatment — a lesser dose than typical chemotherapy but still enough to make her weak and tired, cause nausea, and leave her body more susceptible to bruising.

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Dealing with seven cancerous tumors in her stomach and liver, the Franklin High senior has not made it through a full week of school this fall, but that hasn’t stopped Conley from serving as a cocaptain on the undefeated soccer team.

With postseason pairings to be released on Wednesday, Franklin is expected to be the No. 1 seed in the Division 1 South sectional, with perhaps its best chance to win the program’s first state championship.

Conley is hoping to play in the tournament, but she knows there’s a chance each morning that she will wake up feeling too weak.

There’s little doubt on the Franklin bench that she will make an impact regardless.

“We call her Team Mom,” said fellow senior cocaptain Kristi Kirshe. “If you come off the field and she’s not on, she’s the first one to give you water. She’s the first one to make sure you’re OK. She’ll take care of you if you’re bleeding.

‘We call her Team Mom. If you come off the field . . . she’s the first one to give you water. She’s the first one to make sure you’re OK.’

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“She’s just our moral support. You always hear her. Every time I score I hear her, ‘Yeah, 12.’ She makes me smile.”

Conley has not been on the field all that much this fall.

Early in the season, doctors at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discovered another tumor in her liver — this after dealing with several tumors almost two years ago. She spent much of August traveling to doctors’ appointments, having tests done and undergoing yet another procedure, this one to burn out the newest tumor.

Conley has gastrointestinal stromal tumors, or GIST cancer, which is a form of sarcoma. GIST cancers usually attach to the outside of an organ and, if they cause internal bleeding, can become dangerous, causing the patient to become anemic with the chance of the disease spreading to other parts of the body. (The tumors do not necessarily cause anemia or bleeding, but Conley had an especially large tumor that broke through into her stomach, causing bleeding like an ulcer.)

It’s a rare form of cancer, and much rarer in children, which is why it required upward of a half-dozen doctors and multiple tests to determine the diagnosis after Conley first noticed herself feeling unusually feeble two years ago.

“I became really anemic, so my hemoglobin — which is normally 12 — was at 5.6,” she said. “So I would walk upstairs and be out of breath. And I tried playing soccer but I could barely run 10 yards. And I had played soccer my whole life.”

When Conley first heard the bad news on Nov. 1, 2010, she didn’t have to time to be scared.

She found out about her rare disease on a Monday, and by Friday was in an 8½-hour surgery to examine and remove some of the tumors.

Outside the operating room, her family wasn’t quite as calm.

“Everyone was like, ‘It’s so sad,’ but I was just so stunned,” said Conley’s younger sister, ­Erin, now a sophomore on the Franklin soccer team. “It was hard at first. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Grace wanted to make sure it was not hard on anyone. She told just a few people, only when she felt necessary. If she were to poll her classmates, even two years later, Conley said, she figures most of them would have no idea.

But when news first reached the rest of the soccer team, the players were stunned.

Four days after the surgery, they had to play their first postseason game and rolled over Newton South, 4-0. The next day the Panthers beat Wellesley, 1-0, on penalty kicks. And two days after that, they beat Plymouth South, 3-0, to advance to the Division 1 South title game.

Conley was still in the hospital. The players wrote her initials on their fingernails, nervously waiting for her return.

Before every game, coach Tom Geysen “would tell us, ‘You’re not just playing this game for you, you’re playing it for her, so she can come and see you guys play,’ ” Kirshe said. “So we went in every game thinking, ‘If we win this one, she’ll be able to see the next one.’ ”

Franklin beat Bishop Feehan, 2-1, to win the South sectional, but lost to Central Catholic, 1-0, in an overtime heartbreaker in the state semifinals.

Conley got out of the hospital the next day.

She now talks about her 9-inch scar — which runs from her lower chest down past her navel — and her chemotherapy pill — which she will likely have to take every day for the rest of her life — like most people would talk about a visit to their physician for a common cold.

“For any average kid, it would have been very, very trying,” said Geysen. “I don’t know how she’s done it. To her, it’s just, ‘Another part of me. No big deal. I’m able to play and get here.’ She really plays it down quite a bit.”

This fall, Conley has appeared in five games for the Panthers, who were 15-0 after Tuesday’s 7-0 Hockomock League win over King Philip Regional.

She has not played a full game yet, not because she doesn’t think her body can handle it, but because she thinks, in her current shape, there are better girls playing her position, outside fullback.

“Of course she said that,” said Kirshe, a skilled forward who is in an elite class of Eastern Massachusetts players this year with at least 30 goals. “That’s how she is. The best description for Grace is she’s a solid player. No one will go through her. She marks me in practice and I can’t get by her.”

In Tuesday’s National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll, Franklin was 14th, the highest rating of any girls’ team in the state.

And with just two seniors in starting roles, and six freshmen and nine sophomores on the roster, the young youthful Panthers are hoping for some postseason magic.

Before leaving Tuesday’s game, Geysen reminded them of Wednesday’s practice time and started to walk away.

“Oh wait,” Conley said, jumping off the bench. “I have a doctor’s appointment, so I might not be there.”

“What else is new?” Geysen joked. “I know. You’re fine.”

Conley doesn’t no longer takes one day for granted.

And now, neither do the Panthers.

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached jasonmastrodonato@yahoo.com.
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