CT teen embraces new position after cancer

Cameron Greenwood was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer in 2010. Now 14, can't run the way he used to. So for lacrosse, he was forced to embrace a new position: goalie. Jesse Neider

BURLINGTON, Conn. -- Cameron Greenwood’s scar starts in the middle of his back. It arches upward, climbing away from his waistline before plummeting back down like the beginning of a cursive “M.”

It forks at his hip -- one half continuing 10 inches down his right leg, the other splitting left toward his groin.

A 10½-hour surgery, 90 minutes of which was spent sewing Cameron back up, took one-third of his pelvis and removed a malignant tumor from his right hip. An athlete all his life, Cameron, then 12 years old, was never further from the lacrosse or soccer field than when he lay in a hospital bed on May 28, 2010. He absorbed cancer’s best shot.

But that low point marked the beginning of Cameron’s ascent. He coined “Kickin’ it Together” as the phrase for his comeback attempt. Making it back on the field would be the only definition of success for his story.

Step for step, his drive was matched by overwhelming compassion from family, friends and strangers. He was embraced by the college lacrosse community and was pushed by the very athletes living his ultimate dream.

“We started getting too many cards to fit on the walls anymore,” Cameron said.

His mother, Danielle Greenwood, wondered if he could possibly fail with so many people watching.

The right side of Cameron’s body resembled football laces. Danielle asked the surgeon, Eric Silverstein, how many stitches it took to put her son back together.

Silverstein told her the number would be better measured in boxes of stitches.

“I can’t even tell you how many intravenous lines were sticking out of him,” Danielle said.

They were the product of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer most often found in older children and young teens that accounts for just 1 percent of all childhood cancers.

A stabbing pain that radiated from Cameron’s right hip and spread down his leg in fall 2009 prompted multiple trips to a chiropractor and a slew of sleepless nights. What was originally thought to be a crack in the growth plate at the top of Cameron’s femur was actually a tumor.

“At first I thought they were kidding,” Cameron said, recalling the day in January 2010 when his parents told him. “Then I just spazzed. I had no idea what to do. I asked them if I was going to die.”

Cameron’s oncologist and surgeon warned his parents not to read too much into descriptions of Ewing’s sarcoma on the Internet because they shouldn’t think that everything they would read would apply to Cameron. The doctors said that he would need to relearn to walk, and if the tumor engulfed too much of his pelvis, amputation might be necessary.

“It scares the s--- out of you,” said Scott Greenwood, Cameron’s father.

Cameron underwent six rounds of chemotherapy before the surgery. Over and over the Greenwoods checked into the “time share,” as Cameron called it, at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford.

The rooms differed, but the routine was the same. Each one was decorated with posters, cards and gifts. And each one was filled with visitors -- especially athletes.

Zach Frank, then a goalkeeper on the Sacred Heart men’s lacrosse team, heard about Cameron through a Facebook message from the daughter of Cameron’s school nurse. He immediately contacted his coach, Tom Mariano, and Cameron became an adopted member of the team.

Cameron and Frank became friends, with Frank bringing his teammates to visit at least once a week. At times there weren’t enough seats in the car. Tom Whitfield, then a sophomore attack, rode in the trunk just to see Cameron.

“I didn’t know Sacred Heart -- I didn’t even know it was a school,” Cameron said. “But these guys are doing what I really want to do. I was just really, really happy.”

In addition to Sacred Heart, men’s lacrosse teams at Hartford and Massachusetts also adopted Cameron. Memorabilia poured in from around the country. His bedroom contains a signed Duke lacrosse helmet from the school’s first national championship in 2010, a signed North Carolina jersey, Hartford lacrosse gloves and countless other keepsakes.

On March 6, 2010, Cameron and his father were in the locker room before Sacred Heart’s game against Manhattan. The team added helmet stickers with Cameron’s name and number. Cameron donned his own SHU jersey.

“We’re in the locker room trying to prepare to be all bad-ass, and we have eye black on and we’re screaming,” Frank said. “Then a little kid comes into the room with his dad, wearing one of our jerseys, and you kind of just want to melt.”

One half-inch.

That’s how close Cameron came to losing his right leg. Had the tumor spread to the sacroiliac joint, where the spine meets the pelvis, too much of his pelvis would have been removed for his leg to have a place to sit.

Instead, the surgery was a success. Cameron painstakingly learned to walk again while undergoing eight more rounds of chemotherapy. Less than six months after surgery, he walked a 5K -- sprinting the last 15 yards -- with 35 of his Sacred Heart lacrosse teammates by his side.

The last chemotherapy cycle was in October 2010, and when he completed a final two-week blast of radiation the next month, Cameron officially had beaten cancer.

By the next fall, Cameron was a freshman forward on the Lewis S. Mills junior varsity soccer team. He was finally reunited on the field with the same group of friends for whom he had played goalie in the final minutes of a state cup game in the middle of chemotherapy. They had shielded him like gladiators, ensuring that no opponent would go anywhere near him. The ball never even crossed midfield.

“We’ve been playing with each other for years,” said Chris Marcoux, a teammate of Cameron’s. “We were a family.”

Cameron, now 14, can’t run the way he used to. His right leg won’t let him. So for lacrosse, he was forced to embrace a new position: goalie.

He broke his hand in April when a shot slammed into it. Two weeks later, he was back on the field with a slip-on plastic brace that fits under his goalie gloves.

“I wish we had 40 kids that have the commitment that Cam has,” said Mike Baden, Cameron’s junior varsity lacrosse coach.

As he retells parts of his story, Cameron breaks down into tears. He has experienced more than any of his friends. He’s conquered more than most adults.

An X-ray of what remains of Cameron’s hip hangs in Mariano’s office at Sacred Heart. He’s one of the dozens of people for whom Cameron is a role model and an inspiration.

Cameron’s toughness and their love got him back on the field. They kicked it together.