Forever changed

Bryn Mawr's Phoebe McCarthy had a brain tumor removed when she was 10. She's cancer-free, but the experience has never left her.

Field hockey

October 18, 2006|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,Sun reporter

Last year when Phoebe McCarthy considered her community service requirement for the Bryn Mawr School, she thought she had found a perfect fit. She wanted to work with the children in the pediatric oncology unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Excited about cheering up the young patients, she went to Hopkins to set her volunteer schedule. The moment she walked through the door, she knew she had made a mistake.

Memories flooded her mind, memories of the fear and pain she felt as a 10-year-old patient in the same ward. Diagnosed with a brain tumor after suffering a seizure on the playground at Bryn Mawr, McCarthy endured two lengthy operations to remove the malignant mass as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

As much as she wanted to help those children, it was just too soon.

"I just froze. I think it was too early for me to go and see people who were like me. I walked into the room and I said to the person I was supposed to meet with, `I'm really sorry, but I can't do this right now.'

"There was this feeling in my body. I was uneasy about being there and I really just wanted to cry, because it just brought back so much," said McCarthy, now 17.

Until that day, she thought she was past such overwhelming feelings. Growing up a healthy, active teenager, she never forgot, but she never dwelt on her past.

Now cancer-free and one of the top players on the Mawrtians' No. 4 field hockey team, McCarthy doesn't talk much about her experience.

"It's not something she hides, but it's not something she talks about all the time like, `Oh, feel sorry for me,' " friend and teammate Allie Emala said. "She's happy to talk about it. It's an emotional story to hear. It's something that's made her a strong person."

If McCarthy believes her story can help someone going through a similar situation, she's quick to relate everything from the fear and confusion after her seizure to how miserable she felt during chemotherapy.

There were touching moments, too, such as her first day back at Bryn Mawr with her head shaved from surgery. Her best friend Emily Matthews wore a bandana just like McCarthy did. Soon, the whole fifth-grade class was wearing them.

She also remembered the cards, letters and posters from her classmates that awaited her arrival at her grandparents' home a few days after her initial diagnosis on Jan. 5, 2000 - a day that had been doubly difficult for the McCarthys because their Glyndon house burned down that day.

McCarthy also talks about how great her life is now, how close her family is, how she's happy to play hockey with her friends and sing with the Peabody Children's Choir. She'll have one more magnetic resonance imaging test before she goes to college, but, she said she's been told that her cancer is unlikely to return.

Last summer, she went to field hockey camp at Dartmouth and to a pair of recruiting showcases. She has made two college visits but has not decided where she'll go.

Bryn Mawr coach Jeanette Budzik said McCarthy has been dedicated to the sport for a long time. A defender and midfielder, she has participated in the U.S. Field Hockey Association's Olympic development-style Futures Program since ninth grade.

"She has a lot of discipline and a zest for life when she's playing," Budzik said. "She's worked hard. Over the years, if she hasn't accomplished something the first time, she's the type of kid who doesn't let that shut her down. She goes back and tries it again. She's a fighter."

She fought to get back into sports while undergoing radiation treatments. She played lacrosse that spring with a helmet on.

After her final chemotherapy treatment in July, she begged and pleaded with doctors to let her go to summer camp at Wyonegonic in Maine. She finally went for 3 1/2 weeks, but she had to see the nurse every day.

In writing her college essay, McCarthy, who has a 90.8 academic average, reflected on the person who made the biggest impression on her during some of the toughest times - a 13-year-old girl whose name she doesn't remember.

During each of McCarthy's chemotherapy treatments, the girl was also there receiving treatment. They talked about family and how much they both liked the color pink.

Most of all, McCarthy noticed that the girl was always laughing.

"We never talked about our common illness, and I was so curious as to why she was always so happy," McCarthy said. "It was amazing to see someone like that going through the same thing I was going through, and I was always crying and she was always so happy."

During treatments that also included intravenous medication, McCarthy said she had to take 32 pills at once. She wondered why the other girl took twice as many.

"She saw me looking at her funny and she said, `Oh yeah. I take a lot of pills.'

McCarthy asked her why and the girl responded, "My tumor is inoperable, and they don't think I can survive."

"Looking back at it now, that moment was when I began to wonder, `Why am I so sad when this girl can't even have her tumor removed?' That moment started to change my whole perspective on my whole situation. To this moment, I live by her example," said McCarthy, who doesn't know what happened to the girl.

McCarthy's mother, Charlotte, said the change came slowly, but she has seen her daughter become more present in the moment, an outlook reinforced by the sudden deaths of both of her grandfathers within the past five years.

"She really knows you have to make the most of each day because you don't know what's going to happen the next day. She's a very resilient person," Charlotte McCarthy said. "She's got an inner strength that helps her get through difficult times."

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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