For many hockey players, the team is family. For Dylan Stevens, 17, his hockey family helped save his life.
Last spring, Dylan was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, the same strain of cancer that afflicted Anaheim Ducks center Saku Koivu. But the disease and weeks of chemotherapy did not keep the Reidsville, N.C., native off the ice for long, much less derail his dream of trying out for his local travel team.
Dylan says hockey, and his extended hockey family, are what helped get him through the toughest year of his life.
The story began just before this past Easter when Dylan told his mother, Gidget, about a swelling in his neck. A biopsy came back negative, but a CT scan found five nodes in his neck that doctors said were too large not to be lymphoma.
According to the U.S. Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health website, Burkitt’s is a “very fast-growing” type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which attacks the body’s lymphoid tissue including the spleen and parts of the immune system.
Dylan, who is the second of three Stevens sons, had always been healthy. But doctors told him surgery could remove the nodes, but not provide a cure for the disease. He was looking at chemotherapy, which would keep him off the ice indefinitely.
Most who undergo chemotherapy have a port installed under their skin. The port has a catheter, which leads directly to a vein and can make a very unpleasant round of treatment a bit more comfortable. The alternative is multiple needle sticks to deliver the chemo as well as to draw blood.
“Hockey has always motivated me. It’s my sport. I’ve been playing it so long
“Somewhere back in [Dylan’s] mind, he was going to play hockey, even though if he was hit it could possibly rip the port out and we would have major issues,” Gidget said.
So Dylan chose to go through 10 weeks of chemotherapy without a port. Every Friday at 9 a.m., he went to Brenner’s Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem for a full day of chemotherapy.
“Hockey has always motivated me,” Dylan said. “It’s my sport. I’ve been playing it so long I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from playing.”
Beginning just after Easter, Dylan and his mom went to Brenner’s every Friday for a full-day session of chemo. The 10 weeks were painful for the Stevens family. At Brenner’s, they saw many children whose conditions were worse than Dylan’s. Gidget said seeing those other kids gave them perspective on Dylan’s fight.
“We talked a lot [and] I got to know [Dylan] a little bit better,” she said. “You walk into that world and you see kids that may never come home. I felt very lucky.”
Through it all, Dylan’s belief that he would get better never wavered.
“I always felt like I was going to get through it,” he said. “Personally to me it wasn’t that big of a deal. I was more worried about losing my hair than anything.”
Dylan did lose his hair and was seriously weakened by the chemo. But the worst news was that doctors told him it might take a year for him to have enough strength to get back on the ice.
As Dylan went through treatment, his hockey family began to rally around him. Two hockey benefits were held in early summer to help the family cover the high costs of the treatment. The first was a roller hockey tournament in June and the second was a benefit game at the IceHouse of Greensboro.
Dylan played in both events. In fact, three weeks after starting chemo he was back on the ice playing pick-up.
“I felt a bit weaker, but it was great to be back on the ice,” Dylan said, remembering that first time back. “I hadn’t been on in so long.”
Playing pick-up was one thing, but Dylan had two other much more difficult goals. He wanted to finish the school year and he wanted to try out for, and make, his 16 & Under Midget travel team.
“He knew he would be given a spot, but he wanted to earn his way,” Gidget said.
“It didn’t feel right to me,” Dylan added. “Other kids were getting cut. I had to work my way on the team.”
In the end, Dylan accomplished both of his goals. He finished his sophomore year of high school and tried out for his travel team. Not only did he make the team, but he was ranked fifth out of the 18 skaters on the roster.
Once the chemo treatments ended, Dylan’s battle wasn’t over. Medicine left him still weakened and doctors said there was a 60 percent chance of a recurrence in the first six months. That was in December, but as of January, Dylan is still in remission.
Gidget and Dylan are quick to point out that hockey helped get them through a very tough time. The benefit games raised thousands of dollars. The NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes donated a jersey signed by the entire team, a stick signed by former captain Rod Brind’Amour, and a signed photograph of Eric Staal to be auctioned off at one of the benefits.
“Our hockey friends really stepped up to the plate with emotional and financial support,” Gidget said. “He’s got friends that we didn’t even know we had that were awfully generous.”
Beyond that, Dylan says he learned how much he could achieve in the worst of times.
“It felt like I accomplished something in my life,” Dylan said. “This obviously was a big moment in my life. I’ll never forget it. It will be a part of me for the rest of my life.”
Michael Huie is a freelance writer in North Carolina.