'I'm going to play': Hoosac Valley's Alie Mendel opens up about battle with thyroid cancer ahead of team's Coaches vs. Cancer event
Going into her senior year at Hoosac Valley, Alie Mendel was asking herself a question no 17-year-old should have to wonder: "Am I going to die?"
Mendel was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer on June 21, just six days before receiving one of the biggest accolades of her athletic career: The Berkshire Eagle's Female Athlete of the Year award.
It was a shock to the system — especially for a kid who had never faced anything close to a health crisis during her life. No broken bones; no surgery. Nothing.
"I thought I was going to die," Mendel said during a recent practice. "I kept asking my parents and doctors if I was going to die. They were like 'You'll be fine,' but obviously they're not going to tell me if I'm going to die."
But thanks to a giant support system and the outstanding care at Boston Children's Hospital, she had the answer to her existential question: An emphatic "No."
Less than six weeks after receiving her diagnosis, Mendel underwent successful surgery on July 30 to have her thyroid and lymph nodes removed.
Within two days, she was back home; two weeks later, she was playing basketball and soccer again.
Now, when her Hurricanes take the court at Hoosac Valley on Saturday night in the nightcap of Hoosac's Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase, Mendel will be the starting guard for the Hurricanes, playing in a contest that is dedicated to her.
The way Mendel describes it, finding out about the thyroid cancer started out as sort of a joke. About a year before being diagnosed, Mendel felt a lump in her neck. It didn't hurt, though, and there was nothing strange about the bump. So, she did nothing. Then, during lacrosse season in 2018, Mendel felt the bump again.
"I was in class and I was telling my teacher 'feel it.' " Mendel said. "I thought it was like, not cool, but I said 'Feel this; there is this thing in my neck.' "
Her lacrosse coach, and athletic director Molly Meczywor remembers when Mendel mentioned the bump.
"Of course, she was being Alie," Meczywor said. "She was like `Geez, I hope it's not cancer,' and I was like `Alie, stop that! We're not even going to talk that way!' "
When Alie told her mom, Lisa, about the lump in the spring, the family decided to get it looked at.
Still, there wasn't much cause for concern. Mendel had never been very ill in her life, although she did suffer from strep throat a lot, and the family thought the bump might be related to that.
But then, there was cause for concern. What started out as a trip to a pediatrician turned into a trip to her regular doctor, into a trip to Berkshire Medical Center to get a biopsy. The initial biopsy indicated that there was a chance Mendel had cancer — but no definitive proof. So, the Mendels had another hospital visit, this time to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.
At Baystate, the doctors confirmed that Mendel had cancer in her thyroid, and then brought up the prospect that the cancer might have spread to her lymph nodes.
Alie ended up at Boston Children's Hospital as the family sought more clarity. Initially, the family thought of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, but Alie wasn't old enough yet to be treated there.
Instead, the family went to BCH, where she was cared for by endocrinologist Dr. Ari Wassner.
The hospital confirmed that Alie had cancer in her thyroid, and also in her lymph nodes. Surgery would be needed. Originally, though, the surgery was scheduled for 3-4 months out from the visits — right in the middle of the school year.
So Jeff joked with the surgeon, Dr. Biren Modi, about how he could get Alie on the list quicker. Jeff said that maybe leaving flowers for Modi's secretary might do the trick.
Well, Jeff didn't leave flowers, but the day after the family returned from Boston, they got a call from the hospital — a surgery had fallen through, and an opening was ready for Alie the following week.
"Now I'm scared, my wife's scared, Alie's scared, it's like `oh my god, this is really happening,'" said Jeff. "But I said we made this decision to get it done, and this is the one we wanted to. Maybe this is a sign from something saying this is the path we want to go through."
According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 52,000 new cases of thyroid cancer per year, and only 2,170 deaths. The death rate has been fairly steady for many years, and is very low compared with most other cancers. Thyroid cancer is, however, the most rapidly increasing cancer in the U.S. over the last three decades.
Nearly three out of every four cases are found in women, and only about 2 percent of thyroid cancers occur in children and teens.
It is, however, a treatable cancer, and one from which patients can make full recoveries.
Still, try convincing an otherwise healthy teenager who was just diagnosed with cancer.
"I was like 'Oh my god: I'm going to die; I'm not going to be able to play basketball; I'm not going to be able to talk to my friends.' Then they told me that I couldn't sing in my car, I was like `I'm never going to have a life!' It was so bad."
All the while, her parents had to sort their own emotions out, while trying to keep Alie in the right frame of mind.
"It's almost like, you have to separate your situations at different times," Jeff said. "When I'm talking with her about it, being positive toward her and positive about the outcomes.
"But then when I'm driving to work, breaking down, or when we're leaving for Boston at 3:30 in the morning to be there for 8 and she's sleeping. It's crazy. My eyes are all tearing up right now. It's just unbelievable how something like this can happen to someone who is so athletic and someone you care about so much."
Everyone who describes Alie notes how she's typically a quiet, reserved young woman. Her leadership skills come through showing, more than telling. In this instance, though, Alie realized that she had to look around for the help she needed.
"I just realized that I had to trust everyone around me, because I can't help save myself," Alie said. "I had to trust my doctors."
She also found out how deep her support system ran back home. Shortly after learning the initial diagnosis, Mendel went over to dinner at her basketball coach Ron Wojcik's house.
"It was really emotional," Wojcik said about the dinner. "As the adult and as the coach, you want to try to — my heart was tearing up as she's talking to you about it, but you want to be as positive as you can be for her, and not really show that."
While waiting for the surgery, Alie did her best to keep her mind on sports — even lacing up for Bill Robinson's Berkshire Mountaineers AAU team the day before the operation.
"I was going to tournaments with a sore neck from all the biopsies," Mendel said.
Sports also helped provide comfort during the trying times. Jeff Mendel recalled the emotions from the night Alie was named the female athlete of the year.
"That was the same week that I had to tell her she had cancer," Jeff said. "A couple days before, at the gala, that's pretty crazy. You are telling your daughter she has cancer, then find out she's athlete of the year."
"I was scared," Alie said. "I was very scared."
What helped ease Alie's, and her family's, nerves was an anesthesiologist who shared Alie's name — and who happened to be the daughter of one of Lisa's hair clients.
As Jeff recalled, the anesthesiologist walked in and said "Hey family, give me a hug."
The last thing Alie remembers before going under was the other Allison asking what her favorite place to go would be. Bora Bora, Alie replied. Then her nose started to itch, and she was out.
The procedure, which clocked in at just under eight hours, required the doctors to make an incision along Alie's neck line. From that spot, the surgical team would be able to remove the thyroid and the lymph nodes that were cancerous.
The Mendel parents spent the hours of the surgery pacing around, whether in the halls of the hospital or the streets around Boston.
Eventually, the doctors emerged from the operating room with the news Jeff and Lisa had been waiting to hear — it went well.
"That's when you feel like you've made the right decision to come to the right place," Jeff said. "What a special place Boston Children's Hospital is, and how they treat people."
That day, Meczywor drove down three friends of Alie's — Lexi Mercier, Lexi Boucher and Brooke DiGennaro — and Mendel also had extended family and her boyfriend waiting for her when she got out.
"My surgeon was like 'You have a crowd here,' " Alie said. "I was loopy and all that. ... They were just surrounding me. Then I just remember Lexi [Mercier], she just took a selfie with me then showed me. I started crying. I was like, 'My neck looks like that now?' "
Mercier said that the sense of relief that rushed over her was overwhelming.
"We all looked at her and said she looked fine, she looked good," Mercier said. "You're OK; you did it. That big part, the stress of the surgery, everything was over with and she was OK. We were just relieved that she was OK."
The surgery wasn't the end of Alie's road, though. Mendel also had to start a radioactive iodine treatment, which is ongoing. The radioactive iodine is supposed to help Alie's body kill whatever remaining cancer cells are still in her remaining lymph nodes.
The radioactive iodine treatment means Alie needs regular scans to check for any lingering cancer cells. Jeff Mendel recalled how scary the first one was.
"When she went for her first scan with the tracer inside her, the first thing she says is 'It's definitely in my lungs. She's like 'I know it right now, it's in my lungs,' " Jeff recalled, noting that thyroid cancer is most likely to spread to the lungs. "I'm like ... don't think like that,' and then they went and scanned her, and it wasn't in her lungs.
"She was pretty excited about that."
Alie only had to spend one night at the hospital post-surgery, but just being home was still far from being in the clear. She had to go through three days of being in quarantine, thanks to the radioactive iodine.
Her neck was in pain from babying one side too much, she said. She could hardly eat, and described the pain like having "severe strep throat."
But bed rest wasn't much to her liking. Alie was supposed to be on the mend for two weeks. But not even a week later, a former Hoosac standout, Madi Ryan, asked Alie if she wanted to hoop in the women's summer league.
Playing so quickly was not advisable, so Alie simply went and watched.
But, the itch was back already, and before the two weeks were up, she was playing with the Hoosac squad.
"I don't even know how to explain it," Alie said of the first time playing again. "It was such a great feeling."
And while the sense of relief for Alie is apparent, Mercier said that the rest of her Hurricane teammates felt it as well.
"We were all kind of nervous the first time she was back on, seeing if she was OK from all the medicine," Mercier said. "It was amazing to see her get back on the court and know she'll be good for the season."
The litmus test for Alie's recovery came quickly. Her soccer coach, Kathy Budaj, told Mendel that Mendel's health was more important than playing. Mendel, though, wasn't having that.
"I was like, `what are you talking about?'" Mendel said. "Everyone was telling me that my health was more important. I was like `I want to play sports again, stop saying that.'
"That made me upset, that they kept saying that. I was like `I'm going to play.'"
With the Hurricane soccer team ready to get the season going, the team headed out to Hampshire Regional for a scrimmage. In the scrimmage, Alie — never one to shy away from contact — caught an elbow, directly at her throat.
"I went down. I was like 'It's going to be OK,' " Alie said. "I was weak, because I was getting ready for my treatment. I was sick, but I was still playing."
Jeff and Lisa were still worried about their daughter playing, so soon after the surgery. But Alie was Alie.
"Once she said she wanted to go — she's hard-headed," Jeff said.
Alie scored two goals and had four assists in the fall for the soccer team. And while she wasn't back to 100 percent, the fact that she laced up her cleats at all was a big step forward.
Then, once the fall season ended, she got to make her return to the hardwood.
"It's interesting; we do a lot of sprints early at the first day of tryouts," said Wojcik, the hoops coach. "She's not typically always our fastest person, but she was in the head of every sprint that day.
"That's what stood out to me," he said. "It was almost like she was making a statement that `I'm back.' "
Slowly, Alie regained her form. She reached the 1,000-point mark earlier this season, and her team is off to a 9-1 start heading into Saturday's Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase.
All of the worries Alie felt about her health in soccer season, are now a distant memory.
"I think the only thing I worried about was during soccer season, I wasn't playing to my potential," Mendel said. "But I feel like basketball is different for me. I know that this is my last season, I've been through a lot, but now I'm pushing 10 times harder to work harder and help our team, and push us to get us where we need to be."
Her coach said he's seen a renewed sense of vigor in his senior captain.
"There's definitely a maturity level, more so than the typical junior to senior," Wojcik said. "I've seen a drive and focus in her that I have not seen in her before.
"Not that she didn't always want to win or be her best — because I think she always did — but I see her more focused and more driven now toward her goals and our goals, than I've ever seen her before."
Along the way, the support has been moving to the family.
"I'm just more thankful for my family and friends," Alie said. "Them being there for me like that. People that I wouldn't even think of [reached out]. I'm thankful for everybody that supported me, especially my team, because I knew that I was going to be able to go to them and play with them again."
Meczywor, who has known Alie since she was in grade school, said that she's seen a more open Alie Mendel since the surgery. That means more smiles, more laughs, and more shows of caring to those around her.
"She did say she appreciates things so much more, this helped put things in perspective," Meczywor said. "It was a pretty powerful conversation for a 17-year-old to have."
Or, as her father put it: "I think she grew up a lot. She appreciates a lot of the little things that she took for granted before."
While Alie's surgery was successful, she is not out of the woods yet. The radioactive iodine treatment lasts a full year, and Mendel has a key body scan coming up in March that will let her doctors know if the cancer has spread any more.
She went last Friday for a check on her neck after feeling some bumps, and she will require routine checks throughout the rest of her life. The Mendels, though, learned a valuable lesson in their trips to Boston Children's Hospital.
"The only thing they ever talked about was worrying about one step at a time," Jeff said. "We were asking questions about later on, and they were like `Don't worry about later on; we have to worry about right now."
For now, Alie is back to living her regular life, and her thoughts have turned from "Am I dying?" to what school to choose. Just this week, she told The Eagle she's settled on Westfield State University to continue her education, both in the classroom and on the basketball court.
The fight will go on, but for now, the Mendel family can take solace in knowing that Alie has won her initial battle — and that she has the guts to go on and win the war.
Geoff Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @GSmith_Eagle on Twitter and 413-496-6254.
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