Young cancer patient hopes for one good baseball season

Richie Suarez, with parents Denise and Ralph, was diagnosed with cancer at 18.
Richie Suarez, with parents Denise and Ralph, was diagnosed with cancer at 18. (APRIL SAUL)
Posted: September 15, 2012

Richie Suarez and his family would say that all in all, they have a lot to be thankful for.

In late August 2010, Richie was 18 and in the best shape of his life. He was two days away from moving from Voorhees to Rowan University, where he would study math or science and play his beloved baseball.

Then he was thrown the worst curve imaginable: He was diagnosed with a pediatric form of leukemia.

Nearly 14 months of intensive chemotherapy followed to beat the disease into remission. His hair fell out, he lost weight, he was fatigued - the usual side effects.

Lesser-known, but not uncommon, however, are the later effects of the potent cancer drugs. Suarez incurred avascular necrosis, or bone death. This winter, the former captain of Eastern Regional High School's baseball team expects to have surgery to replace both hips. Playing baseball for Rowan will remain on hold for at least another season.

In the meantime, Suarez and his family have another dream - to help make a difference for other young people like him. That begins Saturday.

In honor of National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, the Suarez family has organized a community fair from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at John Connolly Memorial Park on Centennial Boulevard in Voorhees.

What started as perhaps a modest craft show has morphed into an event with close to 100 vendors, entertainment, children's activities, and an expected visit from the Phillie Phanatic, as businesses and civic associations have pitched in. All proceeds will go to the Cancer Center of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, where Suarez was treated.

"Since it hit home, for us it's kind of personal," Suarez said. "It's our way of trying to raise awareness and spread the word."

The Suarez family has been working on the event since the spring, through the organization they founded called Striking Out Kids' Cancer.

Suarez's mother, Denise, said the community fair would pay tribute to young cancer sufferers and their battles, but also call attention to the need to increase childhood cancer research funding, and to find new therapies without long-term negative effects.

"That's what we're striving for - to have them survive and have quality of life," said Denise Suarez, a night auditor for a hotel.

Many of the current treatment therapies are powerful, even toxic. Cancer survivors can suffer from long-term side effects, including heart, lung, bone, and muscle damage, neurocognitive problems, cataracts, and infertility. The side effects, which can take many years to emerge, occur in adults, too.

But childhood cancer survivors, with their still-developing bodies and their whole lives ahead of them, are a bit different, said Anne Reilly, medical director of Children's Hospital's oncology division.

"I do think children are more susceptible," Reilly said. "They are more likely to have severe side effects."

Cancer is a leading cause of death of children under 15, and 20 percent of children diagnosed with cancer die of the disease, according to Children's Hospital. And child cancer survivors may have to live with the side effects of their treatment for the rest of their lives.

Doctors at Children's Hospital are participating in research into a different kind of cancer drug, as well as a treatment that would use patients' own cells to fight their cancer, Reilly said.

Childhood cancer research needs more funding than it receives, she said, which Children's Hospital has been highlighting in its monthlong awareness campaign. According to a congressional report the hospital cited, only about 4 percent of government cancer research funding goes toward pediatric cancer.

Richie Suarez will get outpatient chemo for another year and a half.

Since January, the intensive chemo behind him, he has been a Rowan student and part of the baseball team, although he hasn't been able to compete. Last season, he worked out with the team and went to every game. He and his family hope he will be to able to resume participation after he recovers from hip surgery. Without the replacement, he eventually would lose the ability to walk, his mother said.

Suarez's father, Ralph, a former minor league player, said he had seen his son, long a serious athlete, push himself back into shape twice since he got sick, including playing baseball over the summer with an amateur league, only to be knocked back by worsening bone necrosis.

But Suarez hasn't given up.

"There's nobody as committed as much as he is," Ralph Suarez said.

"Baseball is his life," his mother said.

Suarez started with T-ball in kindergarten, and it's been his passion ever since. His style as a pitcher is collected and intense. In high school, he not only played for Eastern but also in a summer league. Needless to say, he is a devoted Phillies fan.

But his drive to get back on the mound isn't only the love of a sport, according to his family. It's also a matter of character.

"He was always the kid who if someone said he couldn't do something, he would prove them wrong," Denise Suarez said.

Suarez will say he has good and bad days, but he would just as soon not have the conversation dwell on him and his condition. He says he jokes about it.

He talks about the kindness shown to him by local sports figures, including Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels, who had a long bedside chat with him at Children's Hospital.

He speaks, too, of the efforts of various charities to brighten the lives of young cancer patients, such as a surfing getaway last summer. A trip to Phillies' spring training had to be canceled; he was too sick.

Issues other people stress over don't get to him anymore, he said. "I look at everything differently."

And he appreciates little things: the taste of food, walking. "I appreciate hair."

He hopes Saturday's event, which his family would like to make an annual affair, calls attention to the need for more research and brings in some funding. He would rather see that larger focus than a spotlight on him.

But he does have one wish, something just for him: "To play one season, to pitch and get a win. By the time I graduate . . . one season. That's it."


Contact Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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