February 5, 2010

A Crusader For Hope

By James Greene
Patriot League Media and External Relations Assistant

A cancer diagnosis and the chemotherapy treatments that usually accompany it are trying and arduous enough for any adult. Now imagine what it's like for a child.

For Holy Cross junior forward Andrew Keister, what some can only imagine became all too real for him. At age eight, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which the National Cancer Institute says is the most prevalent pediatric cancer, accounting for about one-quarter of all cases diagnosed in children under age 15.

"My parents left the room for about two or three hours," Keister recalled of the day he was diagnosed. "I just remember not really understanding what was going on. I remember them coming back and seeing them crying hysterically. At that point I knew it wasn't anything good."

To rid his body of the disease, he underwent nearly four years of treatments where chemotherapy was injected directly into his spine. Despite the length of time and the long road of therapy, Keister did his best to be like any other normal elementary school student. He remained active in athletics.

"I couldn't play football because the treatment softens your bones," Keister explained. "I played soccer, still played baseball and obviously basketball. But it was only one season, my fourth grade season, which was the only time I couldn't play basketball because I was going through a very intensive part of the treatment. Other than that I stayed active and participated in all those sports. I just tried to act like a child of that age."

Basketball was, and still is, important to Keister, but it took a different meaning for him during his battle with leukemia. The sport gave him an opportunity to be just like every other young boy in the neighborhood, despite his own fight. "I used basketball as a way to still relate to my friends and be a part of a team," he said. "When I was on the court, I felt like a normal child again. I realized who my true friends were and it was good having that support from those individuals because that's the thing that really helped me get through some tough times."

Treatments stopped and the cancer went into remission in 2000. Since then, Keister has been cancer free. Because he's gone over five years without a relapse, doctors are confident he's beaten the disease.

At Holy Cross, Keister serves as a co-captain of the basketball team and was selected First-Team All-Patriot League last season as a sophomore, but his notoriety has grown more so because of his personal victory off the court. As a cancer survivor, he's begun sharing his experiences with others, trying to alleviate the fears of children diagnosed with cancer and share some hope. "I find myself in a pretty unique situation because of my story," he remarked. "I think I can give kids hope and show them it's a speed bump."

Recently, when Keister was home in southern New Jersey, he visited with a child in a neighboring town who was also diagnosed with leukemia and had relapsed. There was an outpouring of support from the community and a charity run was organized by coaches of the local Police Athletic League. Keister was asked by one of his former coaches if he could speak to the family. He did, and came armed with a Holy Cross t-shirt and a basketball signed by the entire team.

"It made me feel like it was something so rewarding to myself to know that I'm helping a family," Keister explained. "Even though it's a small thing, it brought a lot of light to them and they're really happy that I could come there, speak to their son and speak to them, and give them that hope that these things can happen, and no matter what happens when you're a child you still have a whole lifetime ahead of you."

Keister explained it was the first time he took on the role of informal counselor to a family affected by cancer, and he wants to do more of it. "I really feel I can help people understand there are tough times but there's that sunshine at the end," he said.

Holy Cross asks its students to be "men and women for others," and Keister feels his own personal experiences coupled with what he's learning in Worcester are a perfect match.

"If you come [to Holy Cross] straight out of high school, you don't really understand those Jesuit ideals and what it really stands for, it's just a saying," he said. "But once you deal with things, as you go through your college career and you look back on your life and apply these things to that, you find yourself relating more. I think it's a perfect example of that."

This article will appear in the 2010 Patriot League Basketball Tournament Program.