For a healthy high school senior to wind up battling cancer is a little surreal. For him to have to do it again a few months later?
“You always worry about relapse, but it wasn’t even a relapse,” said Anthony Capalbo, whose older son, Charlie, is in Boston battling leukemia, a second variety of cancer in a year and a half. “The way it presented was weird. Some of the side effects from the chemo he’s having are weird.”
There is good medical news, at least, in his treatment. And once again, the hockey community has rallied around the former Fairfield high school co-op goaltender.
On Dec. 30, the Fairfield Theatre Company will host “Capalbo Crushes Cancer” night, featuring a live band, a DJ and food trucks.
The Bridgeport Sound Tigers plan a benefit night for the family on Feb. 23; a portion of the proceeds from tickets bought via a web link will go to the family. The team is hopeful that Charlie will be there.
And that’s just a portion of how the Capalbos’ hometown of Fairfield and the surrounding community have supported Jen, Anthony, Charlie and Will Capalbo.
“One of my cousins told me when Charlie was first diagnosed, his wife went through something pretty terrible,” Anthony Capalbo said. “He said his aunt told him, ‘Just let people help you, because they really want to help you.’ And they do.
“I went outside last night to walk the dogs, and someone left two tins of cookies on our front steps. Someone did our window boxes. You hate what happened, you hate what Charlie has to go through, but the response to it is just amazing. It helps you get through every day.”
Charlie Capalbo was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoblastic lymphoma T-cell Stage 3 cancer in March 2017, just after the high school hockey season ended. He went through powerful treatments with vicious side effects. He lost nearly half his body weight.
He came out in remission on the other side, with no sign of a tumor earlier this year. Then in early October, doctors found, as Anthony put it, “something weird” in Charlie’s spinal fluid.
“They didn’t have enough fluid for a second reading,” Anthony said. “They didn’t initially identify it as different cancer.” But it was a form of leukemia.
“Even the Dana-Farber (Cancer Institute in Boston) people hadn’t really seen how Charlie presented. Dana-Farber has the link to Seattle Children’s, then they have a link to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and even when they asked those other hospitals, they’d never seen anyone presenting like he’s presenting. We took it as a good thing, that it’s only a little bit of bad cells in his spinal fluid.”
They’re still not exactly sure how it happened, Anthony said. There’s no sign that it’s genetic.
Jen has been in Boston with her son; Anthony and Will get there when they can.
The good news? “He’s in remission again,” Anthony said Tuesday. “We’ll find out officially tonight or tomorrow to 100 percent confirm it.” (A text came later: “bone marrow biopsy negative.”)
“He’s never once tested negative in his bone marrow, not with the first cancer, not with the second cancer. But they keep checking. Most likely it’s fine.”
And more good news: Will Capalbo, Charlie’s younger brother and another Fairfield goalie, is a match for a bone-marrow transplant.
“I’m excited for the 30th,” said Will Capalbo, and his father said he and Will expect to be there. “I’m excited for the future, the next few months. It’ll be a rough ride the next few months. But after that, hopefully, we get some space for a long time.”
The timetable isn’t yet set, Anthony Capalbo said, though the tentative plan is in the first half of January. Charlie could still have one two-week cycle of treatment or a pair. Preparing for the transplant takes a week or two, with chemotherapy, radiation.
Will has preparation, too; he’ll need shots, which Anthony offered to give him, but Will shook his head.
“The week before, I think, he gets some shots to elevate his white blood cells, then he’s in the hospital overnight just for observation,” Anthony said. “It’ll take anywhere from a week to a month to recover. I’m hoping a week. I’m hoping it’s the week they don’t have a game.
“It would have been devastating, if this wasn’t going on, senior year, to miss some games. But: big picture.”
The big picture includes the pain of neuropathy in Charlie’s face, in his legs, an apparent side effect of his treatment. It’s also, said Anthony, watching Charlie get around, encouraging the younger patients and chatting up the nurses.
And there’s optimism in the big picture.
“It’s just a matter of (the transplant) taking, the new cells overcoming old cells. We know a girl who got out in three weeks, which is unheard of,” Anthony said. “It’s usually four to six weeks, and even then you’re not supposed to be around people.”
They have learned more about cancer treatment and diagnosis than any family wants to know. But they’ve also seen an incredible response.
Jim Craig, the goaltender for the 1980 gold medal-winning United States Olympic hockey team, visited last week (and they found out Craig had lived in the neighborhood in the 1980s). Several Boston Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox players have come by Boston Children’s Hospital.
Players from around the area are supportive, too. Anthony said they’ve heard from teams who want to wear a sticker on their helmets supporting Charlie’s fight. Moms of players around the region have organized fundraisers, including the Dec. 30 event. One of those mothers has a brother-in-law who runs a restaurant in the North End of Boston and sends food over often.
It’s all support for the most important part of the fight.
“You watch Charlie; you’ve got to be a trouper, because he’s a trouper,” Anthony said.
“I think hockey prepared him for this stuff, especially being a goalie, because it’s tough.”