April 7, 2014
By Joe Stapleton
Mike Francia can talk about it now.
He can talk about being placed in quarantine because his immune system was too low. He can talk about the hospital staff treating him while wearing HAZMAT suits, moving in and out of his room looking like aliens from outer space. He can talk about his roommate, Jesse, throwing up constantly as a result of his chemotherapy. He can talk about how he, Mike, sat on his hospital bed as a freaked-out nine-year-old, listening to the sounds his sick friend made and wondering when he would be making those sounds, too.
He can talk about it now, but that wasn't always the case. Francia is now a healthy, happy 22-year-old lacrosse player for the University of Michigan. He has been cancer-free for 11 years and, as he says, the days he spent at the hospital as a kid feel like "another lifetime ago."
Time heals all wounds, even the ones inflicted by the Hodgkin's lymphoma that beset Francia all those years ago.
Learning to become comfortable with what happened to him has been a process, but it is a process that is now bearing fruit for the cancer community. Francia will captain the lacrosse team as it participates in Relay For Life, a worldwide movement that raises money for cancer research, on Saturday, April 12, on campus at Palmer Field.
Francia didn't always see his experience battling cancer as a way he could help others.
"I've definitely seen a huge shift in how it's affected me," Francia said. "From 12 to 15 maybe I was very introverted about it, didn't want to talk to people about it. It was kind of a touchy subject. I wasn't ready to talk about it, even with my parents."
He first learned he had cancer after doctors uncovered speckles of white on a chest X-ray Francia received at the doctor's office when he wasn't feeling well. Originally diagnosed as Epstein Barr virus, a common strain of the herpes virus, Francia's parents sought a second opinion. At Memorial Sloane Kettering, the family learned Mike had Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Mike himself didn't know about his condition until he finally confronted his parents after numerous doctors' visits and witnessing emotional phone calls with family and friends. Only nine years old at the time, Francia's parents wanted to be sure about his condition before they told him about it.
"One night, I was just sitting with my parents and I was like, 'Mom, dad, do I have cancer?'" Francia said. "And they both broke down, obviously. My dad was like, yeah, you do. You have cancer."
And so began the torturous monotony of the cancer patient -- treatment, radiation, chemo, Francia experienced everything. Miraculously, Francia said he never got horribly sick during treatment, as most cancer patients do. His journey through cancer was also different in another crucial way: throughout treatment, Francia continued to play sports.
Francia loved sports as a kid -- still does, obviously. When he was younger, Francia played baseball and soccer -- he didn't get hooked on lacrosse until around fifth grade, when his older cousin who played at Hofstra introduced him to the sport.
For the most part, his parents gave Francia the okay to go to practice and games as long as he felt well enough. Because he wasn't feeling sick after treatment, this meant he was still able to be a part of his teams. For Francia, this time he got to be a normal kid again, even when going through cancer treatment, was a crucial healing tool.
"It was kind of my outlet of being with my friends again. It all went away," Francia said. "You get images in your head that you'll never forget, and I'll never forget at Miller-Driscoll school walking out and they had already started (baseball) practice and I got to run out and my coaches were like, 'You're here, that's awesome.' It's like a specific image that I'll never forget, you know?"
That's not to say Francia's treatment didn't have its fair share of the usual bone-chilling moments. To this day, Mike still has a phobia of needles because of the many injections he got as a patient. One of his most frightening experiences was when he was in school soon after he started chemo. Francia was sitting at his desk, writing. All of a sudden, a clump of hair fell onto his paper. And then another. He grabbed his hair and it came off in his hand. That day, Francia's father gave his son a buzz cut. And that weekend, his four best friends shaved their heads, as well.
Throughout his experience dealing with cancer, it was just that -- support from his friends and family -- that kept Francia in high spirits. His best friend, Ryan Delissio, would go with him to get scans every three months. His brother and sister would take time off school to accompany their little brother to chemo. His mom quit her job as a kindergarten teacher in order to be more available to him during treatment.
"My family and my friends being the way they were made everything so much easier on my. Even my grandparents, they were at everything, every doctors appointment," Francia said. "It was definitely like I was not going through it alone."
With the help of family, friends and his doctors, Francia made it through. And now that he feels comfortable talking about his recovery, he feels a responsibility to share his story with others in the hopes that it may help someone going through the same thing. Relay For Life is an opportunity for Francia to do just that.
It also allows Francia to give back to an organization that played a significant role in his healing when he was younger. Francia participated in Relay For Life in his hometown of Wilton, Conn., every year. And for a while, every year it was a very emotional experience.
"I remember for three years in a row, every time we did a luminaries ceremony (when participants light candles for those who are struggling with cancer or who have died from it), me and my brother and my sister would just break down," Francia said. "It all piles on at that moment, when it's dark and the candles are lit and you're just walking, it's silent."
Francia was the natural fit for the role of captain on the Michigan lacrosse team's Relay For Life contingent. Being able to positively affect a cancer patient as someone who not only survived but now plays college sports is something Francia doesn't take lightly -- in fact, he sees it as his responsibility.
It's a responsibility Francia has transferred to his lacrosse teammates. In the fall, the team "adopted" a young boy who had been suffering from cancer named Miles Root through the Friends of Jaclyn program. The foundation matches up children with brain tumors with college sports teams. In January, every player on the Michigan lacrosse team shaved their heads in solidarity with Miles. Unfortunately, Miles passed away a little over a month ago after a four-year battle.
"Our community service, really anything we do along those lines, is really driven by our guys," Michigan lacrosse coach John Paul said. "Our guys take the initiative to find some causes that they really believe in and do that on their own ... (adopting Miles) was great for our guys to give us some perspective. He had three brothers, too, and I think it really helped their family to be involved, as well."
Relay For Life is just another way for the lacrosse team to help the cancer community. For Francia, the event won't be something done necessarily out of the kindness of his heart -- rather, it's something he is called to do as a survivor.
"I feel as though I have something that I need to give back," Francia said. "Now it's more of a celebration for me. I've definitely turned that corner where it's so far in the past that I can at once celebrate what I've overcome, but at the same time celebrate what other cancer survivors have overcome and celebrate the lives of those that didn't make it. It turned micro into macro: micro, it's just about what me and my family went through; now macro, it's about the whole cancer community, how do we help that, how do we affect that."