Lions' Casal staying positive in cancer fight

Photo: David McGregor

Photo: David McGregor

They likely will pick up the stick in the near future, though. Maybe for some private practices. Maybe for a summer camp.

Casal is in a much different situation. Her state playoff lacrosse game last weekend was her last, win or lose, for some time.

The Peachtree Ridge sophomore was diagnosed last month with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that affects the body's white blood cells and one that has put her life on hold briefly. She began chemotherapy Monday, two days after she finished the lacrosse season.

She played almost a month at the end of the season with the knowledge that dreaded chemo was coming soon, but didn't let it slow her down. She kept practicing and even scored two goals in the Lions' first-round playoff win over McEachern.

"My teammates have treated me normal, which is what I like," Casal said after Peachtree Ridge's last playoff game. "I don't want to be treated like I'm sick or dying because I'm not. I'm still fine.

"I don't feel sick at all. That's why I was totally surprised. I don't feel anything."

Active and athletic, Casal never showed any sign of sickness from the first indicator that something may be wrong --swollen glands in December. Everything seemed fine except for the lymph nodes in her neck that remained hard, so the family eventually requested a biopsy just in case, though the doctor doubted the issue was cancer.

But the Casals got different news when the pathology reports returned and her parents got the frightening phone call. With no family history of cancer, they immediately searched the internet for information on non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

One of the first items on a Google search shows statistics from the National Institute of Health's National Cancer Institute, which reports that 70,130 new cases of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma were reported in 2012 and 18,940 deaths from the disease were reported in the same year.

"It just takes your breath away, it really does," Casal's father Brian, who coaches the Lions' goalies in lacrosse, said of the phone call. "You never think this will happen to your child. You think your kids are healthy. You'd never have thought of this in a million years."

The Casals then had to break the news to their daughter at an emotional family meeting at the dinner table.

"What's the treatment for it?" Casal asked immediately.

"Chemotherapy," her parents answered.

Casal then burst into tears because she knew one of the side effects was the loss of her long hair. She's since had 11 inches cut off her hair and has a wig ready for when the chemo begins to take its toll.

After the initial shock, Casal has been rock solid, according to her friends and family. She always sports her typical positive outlook and bright smile.

"She's just been exceptionally strong through this whole thing," Brian Casal said. "We're having a harder time with it than she is. She got some good information from her doctors and she's gotten a lot of support from the team and from her friends. Everybody's been great.

"It's going to be a challenge, but I think it's something she's handling extremely well. I couldn't be prouder."

Casal's friends have been very supportive in the early stages of chemo, which is scheduled for 12 weeks initially. She will be reevaluated at the halfway point, then again after 12 weeks to determine if more treatment is needed.

The process shouldn't affect her sophomore year --she has finished all of her finals already --but could push into the beginning of her junior year. If that happens, she's prepared for it and knows her friends will be there when needed.

"She's a very friendly girl and everybody likes her," Peachtree Ridge girls lacrosse coach Michael Thomas said. "She has a lot of friends, so I think that's going to help out a lot. I think she'll be strong and do well."

Because of the illness, Casal said she plans to take a one-year leave from the Lions' volleyball team, which she played for as a freshman and sophomore. She's hopeful to play that sport again as a senior.

As for lacrosse, she has a full year to recover for her junior season in the spring of 2013. Her coach will be glad to have her back.

"We have high expectations for her," Thomas said. "She was one of our two primary scorers on the JV. She didn't play as much on varsity because we were loaded at attack. She's got the size. She's a tall girl. She's aggressive and not afraid. I expect her to do well next year and the year after that."

Sports have already taken on a lesser role, though.

Casal expects to rest as much as she can this summer while fighting the sick feelings brought on by the chemo. The family can't plan any long vacations, but are hopeful for a weekend getaway or two.

It's not how Casal expected to spend her summer, but she is focused on staying positive.

"I don't know how (I stay so positive)," Casal said. "(Cancer) just really changes your perspective on things. It makes you realize that things could be over tomorrow, so you have to live every day like it's your last."


Who: McKenzie Casal

Sport: LacrosseSchool: Peachtree Ridge

Class: Sophomore

Favorite movie: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

Favorite sports team: New York Giants

Dream job: "I used to want to be a lawyer, but through all this I really want to do something in the medical field now."

On how her friends have taken her non-Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis: "They've taken it harder than I have. I know it's curable but I don't think they know all the details. They just hear cancer and think the worst."


--Scored two goals as the Lions to the first state playoff victory in school history this season

-- Also plays volleyball for Peachtree Ridge

--Father Brian is Lions' goalie coach in lacrosse