Doctors told Sean Carey he might not be able to walk normally again with his right leg. They said that he might need a special shoe to do so. And they said after surviving a rare type of bone cancer, it was unlikely he would ever play football as a kicker again.
They were wrong.
Sean stepped out onto the Mainland Regional High School field Friday night, suited up in pads and a helmet, wearing a white and green home jersey. When the whistle blew, he took a running start at the ball and kicked with his left leg, the football sailing into the air between the yellow goalposts.
The Carey family had little experience with the effects and impacts of cancer before Sean, now 16, was diagnosed in April 2015, but with immediate medical intervention, physical therapy and tough decisions, the bigger picture started to shift and the goal evolved into making a comeback.
“I heard them say I would never play again, and at the time, I was like, wow, never,” he said. “But after I got back to physical therapy and after my treatments, I just said, no, I’m gonna do this.”
More than 10,000 children younger than 15 receive a cancer diagnosis in a single year, according to the American Cancer Society, but because of major treatment advances in the last decade, about 80 percent of children with cancer survive past five years.
Ewing sarcoma is a rare type of bone cancer, with an average of 250 cases per year in the United States, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The disease most often occurs in children and teens, and about two-thirds of patients live past the five-year benchmark of survivorship.
Jen Carey, Sean’s mother, said her son complained of some pain and stiffness on the outside of his hip in early 2015, and the family consulted doctors and physical therapists who tried treatments for growing pains and abnormalities.
Nicola Owen, physical therapist and owner of Cape Atlantic Physical Therapy in Northfield, noticed that Sean’s pain wasn’t just happening during physical activity, but when he was quiet, too, and that drew some red flags.
Although the cancer is still considered rare, Owen, who has been a physical therapist for 25 years, said she has treated two other teenagers, both athletes, who have survived Ewing sarcoma.
On a recent Thursday night, Sean jumped on the exercise equipment in Northfield and began a routine of physical therapy exercises, most of which Owen said help strengthen his weak areas in his hip.
When going through treatment, Jen and Glen Carey had to make a decision on whether their son would get surgery, which could remove all the cancer but leave minimal hip and leg function, or get radiation with more possibility the cancer could return.
“We eventually knew he needed the surgery, but we didn’t know what he wanted. We were afraid that he would resent us later after we told him he had to have it,” Jen Carey said. “But he came down and told me that as much as he was scared of the surgery, he was more scared of this coming back one day.”
The high school junior looks like any other healthy teen does, but his jersey and football gear hide the long scar on his right side from where surgeons removed the upper half on his right hip in August 2015. Sean will always have a small horizontal scar on his chest from where doctors inserted a port, which made it easier for them to treat him with 14 rounds of chemotherapy.
The number he weighs in at — about 150 pounds — is a great improvement from the 107 he weighed during his cancer treatments at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, before he got help with a feeding tube.
Sean had been working with local kicker expert Jim Cooper to fulfill a lifelong dream of kicking for Penn State University before he got sick, but the best doctors told him to hope for was to be able to walk normally after surgery.
That didn’t stop Sean from aiming higher by attending physical therapy even through his last few months of chemotherapy. On those days, Owen said, Sean never gave up, even falling asleep during some exercises but insisting they go on.
Nearly two years after his last chemotherapy treatment, Sean is the kicker for Mainland’s varsity team and maintains the dream of playing for Penn State or another D1 college team.
“It’s been great to come back and play with the guys on the varsity team,” Sean said. “You’ve got to go for the highest goal you can aim for and you’ve got to be happy.”