ATLANTA — Forced into the unpredictable world of childhood cancer, Cooper O’Brien and his family quickly learned a few certainties of the disease.
There will be good days. There will be bad days.
“We’ve learned to embrace the good days,” said Donna O’Brien, mother of the North Gwinnett Middle School eighth-grader.
Friday was one of those days. Saturday was even better.
The 13-year-old, a huge sports fan, was treated to an ultimate weekend experience thanks to North Gwinnett High School and its athletic department. The Bulldogs named him their honorary captain Friday morning, creating a Saturday-long journey highlighted by joining the North players on the field for the pre-game festivities and the game at the Georgia Dome, where the team faced Camden County in the Corky Kell Classic.
“It’s a great honor,” said Cooper, grinning as he wore the red No. 1 jersey presented to him during a surprise visit Friday to North Middle. “I didn’t expect it at all. It’s awesome. I completely caught off guard by everything. People have done a lot for me, not just this.”
Cooper’s family and friends kept the weekend a secret until an entourage of North football players, cheerleaders (armed with hand-made Cooper signs) and administrators stopped by his middle school Friday morning. They arrived at his classroom under the guise of an invitation for all the middle-schoolers to the Corky Kell Classic, and their initial comments followed those lines.
Then one of North’s captains, Hayden Sphire, told the class that the team chose Cooper as an honorary captain. The room erupted in applause, giving the youngster’s family and friends the signal to come in from the hallway.
“I could see it on his face that he was very joyful,” Donna O’Brien said.
In addition to his jersey, Cooper got Corky Kell sideline passes and the full North football experience. He joined the Bulldogs for their pre-game meal and bus ride down to Atlanta, sitting beside his cousin Brandon Maffei, a North freshman football player.
He stayed with the Bulldogs through warm-ups, then walked out to midfield for the coin toss on the home field of his favorite team, the Atlanta Falcons.
“We hope this is a great memory for him and lets him be a part of the North Gwinnett Bulldog experience,” North head football coach Bob Sphire said. “High school football’s bigger than the game and that’s a lesson our players just learned (from the gift to Cooper).”
The fun weekend gave the O’Briens, whose family also includes 10-year-old Level Creek Elementary student Parker, a respite from the childhood cancer roller coaster.
The process began with Cooper’s May diagnosis of clear cell sarcoma, one of the rarest of the more than 50 types of sarcoma. The aggressive cancer, discovered in Cooper via a lump under his arm, attacks predominantly soft tissues and tends to attach to tendons in the arms and legs.
Of the roughly 10,000 sarcoma cases diagnosed in the U.S. yearly, the O’Briens have been told that 1 percent of those are clear cell. It’s even rarer that the cancer occurs in children, though clear cell also was the cancer that took the life of another Gwinnett athlete, Norcross football player Nicholas Kim, last month.
“One of the researchers we’ve been in contact with said there are around 100 people - doctors, researchers who have seen it and treated it - around the country,” Donna O’Brien said. “That’s it. There are not that many people who have it. There are not many people who are working on it. So it has to be pushed and make people aware that it’s out there. It’s growing. People are getting it.”
The preferred treatment for clear cell sarcoma is removal of the tumor, as well as radiation. Cooper endured 25 radiation treatments over the summer and his removal surgery was slated for Friday, the day he ended up being surprised by the North football players and cheerleaders.
But the surgery was canceled Wednesday, Aug. 14, when the family got disheartening news from Cooper’s scans — the sarcoma had spread into his lungs. It made for a brutal few days, but the teen bounced back with remarkable positivity.
“He’s been an inspiration to a lot of folks,” Kevin O’Brien, Cooper’s father, said. “People are amazed by him. Last Wednesday was a pretty big blow. In his mind, he thought he would have surgery, rehab, be done and maybe make the second half of basketball season. People see him outside throwing the football and he looks great. But there are private times when he does have the struggles.”
Despite those difficult moments, Cooper is looking forward. He hopes to heal enough to play high school basketball next season.
“It’s good right now,” Cooper said. “I’ve got a few scans coming up next week. I took a day off from school last week to kind of recuperate. I’m just trying to stay positive.”
Kevin O’Brien praised his son’s courage and maturity, particularly in the face of what happened the past few weeks. A naturally shy kid, Cooper has opened up more as his cancer thrust him into a more public role, including a chance to throw out the first pitch at a recent Gwinnett Braves game.
His parents feel he can be an ambassador, someone who spreads the word about a rare and frequently overlooked cancer.
“I was impressed (this weekend) that he handled all the attention very well,” Kevin O’Brien said. “He’s come a long way this last week. He’s really starting to accept what our next phase is. He’s shown a lot of strength. As a dad, I feed off him. From what I’ve seen from him, it excites me. It’s going to be good.”
The next phase for Cooper is a medication, new on the market this year, that is designed to slow the growth of cancer cells. He also is on the list for a clinical trial at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, but that hinges on CHOA receiving FDA approval as a test site and Cooper being accepted into the program. The trial combines an inhibitor with chemotherapy.
The O’Briens are prepared for that next step, with Cooper leading the way.
“(Cooper) uplifts us, so we can uplift him,” Donna O’Brien said. “He wants to be strong for us. We want to be strong for him. So we just enjoy every moment we can, every happy moment. We know we’ll have to talk about things we don’t want to talk about, but we try to be honest. We don’t him to be confused about it. It’s not a nice subject to talk about, but we have to have those conversations. We just take it one day at a time.”
And these past few days have been very good ones.
That was evident to the thousands of fans at the Dome Saturday who saw Cooper smiling at midfield, a thin middle-schooler surrounded by hulking high school football players. It was a gift from a community that the O’Briens, Suwanee residents for the past 18 years, appreciate tremendously.
“I’ve never felt so warm from a place, even where I grew up,” Donna O’Brien said. “People just embrace you here. It just amazes us. It gives us strength and gives us hope. Even people we don’t know telling us they’re thinking about our family, praying for our family. (The day at the Dome) allows him to be a kid. To have that feeling, to have fun. He loves sports and being at the Dome, on the field, he’s in his glory.”