La Salle player returning to form, cancer in remission

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LaSalle College's Chris Pawlowski (left) and Landsdale's Alex Manzo go after a ball near Lasalle's goal. ( Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer )

Chris Pawlowski remembers the shaking weakness in his legs - those times when he wanted to run but could barely stand up.

He remembers the way chemotherapy sapped him of his strength, took away his stamina, and left him lying on the couch or in a hospital for days at a time.

Now, just three months removed from his last chemo cycle, cancer-free and playing 80 minutes per game at midfield for La Salle, Pawlowski uses those memories to put life into a clearer perspective.

It makes more sense to him than ever why he had to keep going. Why he played - often in limited minutes - in every game except one for his club team, PSC Coppa 93, this summer during treatment.

For those who know him, including his father, Matt, who describes his son as "strong-willed to a fault," it's clear why Chris Pawlowski refused to let cancer take away the game that he loved.

"I just wanted to play soccer," Chris Pawlowski said. "That was the biggest thing in my life. Just because I had cancer, I didn't want to just let soccer go."

The reasons why Pawlowski refused to let go of soccer after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in March were never more evident than in the one game he missed this summer.

In the hospital after a bout of chemo, Pawlowski was forced to miss his team's appearance in the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association state championship game in May.

One hour after Pawlowski found out his team won the state championship, the team made a surprise visit to his room in Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to present him with his championship medal and the game ball signed by every player.

"It just shows you that soccer really is a team sport and everyone is there for everybody and everybody supports each other," said Pawlowski, who has been playing with many of the members of his club team for almost 10 years and plays with several at La Salle.

"It makes me want to play more and more. And work harder to do what I have to do to get by."

"It still brings a tear to my eye just thinking about that night," Matt Pawlowski said.

It was one of many tearful nights during a period that Matt Pawlowski described as relentlessly worrisome for him and his wife, Cecilia.

The nightmare started one night in late March when Matt and Cecilia noticed a two-inch lump on their son's neck that was visible from the stands during one of Chris' CYO basketball games.

Chris Pawlowski still recalls when his parents. after a series of tests, broke the news that he had Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"I came home from school and I was sitting on my couch, and my parents came in and they were both crying," Chris Pawlowski said. "It was a shock. I just never thought that anything like that could ever happen. I was just in shock."

For Matt Pawlowski, shock was an understatement: "Talk about being blindsided. This was a kid who was fit and in great health his whole life."

Hodgkin's lymphoma is a form of cancer commonly found in teenagers and young adults. The survival rate is high, but statistics, Matt Pawlowski said, don't serve much consolation to a family actually fighting the disease.

Chris Pawlowski went on to endure four cycles of chemotherapy over four months. His lean, 5-foot-9, 165-pound frame shrunk to less than 140 pounds.

"All muscle weight," Matt Pawlowski said.

But Chris Pawlowski, perhaps more than the countless loved ones around him offering support, somehow managed to keep his spirits high.

Despite constant pain, weakness and physical deterioration, including hair loss, Pawlowski played with his team in regionals in West Virginia. And after winning regionals, Pawlowski played in the Youth National tournament in Kansas during the first weekend in August.

"I would say to him before games, 'Chris, you want to go?' " Matt Pawlowski said. "And he would say, 'Dad, I'm going.' He would say, 'I don't care if I play 10-15 minutes; I'm going. I'm part of that team. I'm on that team. I'm going to be there.'

"And he played every time. And the rest of the game, he'd be like a coach on the bench. It was amazing."

Relief finally came when tests after Chris Pawlowski's final chemo cycle in late July revealed that he was cancer-free.

In his mind, that simply meant it was time to prepare for his junior season at La Salle.

But a clean bill of health didn't mean all his troubles were behind him.

At the beginning of high school practice in August, "we had to run two miles," Chris Pawlowski said. "I could only do one lap. And then I would walk another lap and then run another one. It was frustrating because it was hard for me to even run a lap around the track in the beginning.

"But now I feel so much better. I can run great. I'm getting my stamina back. I'm probably at 85 percent right now."

Pawlowski started his high school season playing 10 to 15 minutes per game. But through constant hard work and a lot of time spent in the gym, the junior managed to play every minute in his team's Oct. 10 win against Archbishop Wood.

Since then, Pawlowski is back to being a key piece of the No. 1-ranked team in the state. Pawlowski has eight goals this season, including the winner against Father Judge on Sept. 20.

He says he's just a touch of speed and stamina away from being back to where he was.

"It's simply amazing, just to see him come back to this point," La Salle coach Bob Peffle said. "Every day is a blessing for us to watch him do what he's doing. He's getting stronger every day, which is a great thing. And he's getting better every day."

While Chris Pawlowski said sometimes he likes to block out his bout with cancer, to pretend the whole ordeal never happened, he doesn't deny that it helped make him into the person he is today.

And for that, he is thankful.

"It made me stronger," he said. "It made me realize the great things in life and that I can't take anything for granted. For now, I just need to take it day by day. And just live life to the fullest.

"But if I'm ever in a hard time, I can kind of look back at this and know that it's going to get better, that I can do anything."


Contact Chris Melchiorre at rallysports@phillynews.com.