With every kick of the ball, he scores against the odds

High schools: Hammond's Mike Panzera, found to have an aggressive form of brain cancer, has rallied like a champion.

October 22, 2003|By Rick Belz | Rick Belz,SUN STAFF

Mike Panzera found himself getting slower. His kick was weaker and less accurate. He was tiring too quickly.

But the Hammond soccer player wasn't worried about his health last October, just his team. Early in November, however, nonstop headaches for almost two weeks forced the starting striker to the sideline during the playoffs.

"I felt I was letting my team down," Panzera said.

By mid-November, double vision had forced Panzera to the hospital, where he learned he faced a frightening battle with an aggressive brain cancer.

The following months would test his courage, but Panzera has survived with humor and grace. Today, the 17-year-old senior will be in Hammond's starting lineup for Senior Day against third-ranked River Hill.

"I'll probably have a wet eye for the first few moments because of everything that's happened," Panzera said. "But I'll have a feeling of accomplishment, because it was my goal to play in this game and there was huge doubt that I'd play soccer again. I'll be very happy. It will be one of my best games.

"You can't let these things slow you down," Panzera said of his cancer. "Soccer keeps me up. I'd be way down without it."

His ordeal began the night after the Bears lost in the state semifinals Nov. 12 and two days after his birthday. Suffering from double vision, Panzera was admitted to Howard County General Hospital, where a CT scan of his brain showed a tumor the size of a baseball pressing against his skull.

From Howard County General, he was rushed to Johns Hopkins at 4 a.m., where he underwent a six-hour operation that removed about 90 percent of the tumor. The remaining 10 percent was in an inoperable area.

The operation temporarily took away some of his word recollection, the peripheral vision in his right eye and his depth perception.

"It was a glioblastoma - the worst tumor possible, fast-growing and aggressive," Panzera said.

He spent two weeks in the hospital and came home for Thanksgiving. Most people who develop this type of cancer live six to 12 months.

The day after Christmas, he began taking an experimental drug called Iressa as part of a nationwide National Cancer Institute clinical trial.

`Handled radiation well'

At the same time, he began radiation treatment at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. He had the treatment five times a week for six weeks.

"I handled the radiation well, better than they expected, although I lost most of my hair," he said.

Panzera's doctor is Howard Fine, chief of the neurology branch of the National Cancer Institute at NIH. Fine, who runs the brain tumor program, said he has treated at least 4,000 people with this particular type of brain tumor.

"Some people become impaired significantly [by glioblastoma] and can't resume a normal lifestyle," Fine said, "but he's 100 percent neurologically, and we don't see any signs of the tumor on his MRI [magnetic resonance imaging]. I've had adult patients who returned to playing sports like tennis or golf, but can't remember any patient playing a contact sport like soccer. I'm incredibly pleased and ecstatic for him and his family."

Fine cautions, however, that Panzera can never be certain the cancer will not return. Panzera will be monitored closely for two years and has an MRI every eight weeks.

"Cells can spread far away from the original cancer site," Fine said.

Panzera, who had a 3.5 grade point average before beginning treatment, started home schooling during the winter break, but by the third quarter, he was back in school about three days a week. Although his GPA dropped to 3.0 last fall, it was back up to 3.5 by fourth quarter.

He said he's thinking about attending college at Maryland or Virginia Tech next fall.

Last summer, with the help of a former club team coach, Mike Senesi, Panzera trained hard to get back in shape for soccer, and was jubilant when he made the Golden Bears team in August.

"Getting cut crossed my mind, because I wasn't nearly as good as I had been," said Panzera, a longtime travel-team player. "Coach [Trevin] London knew I wanted to play really bad, and my main role on the team now is helping the other players get better at practice."

He plays only about five minutes during most games, but Panzera, 5 feet 8 and 142 pounds, scored his team's goal in a 2-1 loss to 14th-ranked Glenelg on Sept. 23.

London said he was devastated when he learned about Panzera's illness last fall.

"I had told him during last season that he was my biggest disappointment," said London, who visited Panzera at Hopkins and brought him a soccer ball signed by all of his teammates. "I couldn't understand why people were just running by him. I didn't know he had this problem. I knew he was a good player.

"He thought I'd cut him this season, and when I didn't, he was the happiest kid. It was like I had given him a million dollars."

His teammates and friends responded compassionately during his treatment, visiting him at the hospital the night before the operation, joking with him and trying to distract him.

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