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Mt. Pleasant teen gets Make-A-Wish surprise

Brian Bowling
| Saturday, April 22, 2017, 5:00 p.m.
Brady Hunker, center, a 15-year-old cancer survivor, reacts as Samara Silverstein, right, Make-A-Wish development coordinator for greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and Emily Hutsko, president of the Seton Hill student athlete advisory committee, announce the fulfillment of his wish to travel to Aruba to scuba dive at Seton Hill University in Greensburg on Saturday, April 22, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Brady Hunker, center, a 15-year-old cancer survivor, reacts as Samara Silverstein, right, Make-A-Wish development coordinator for greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and Emily Hutsko, president of the Seton Hill student athlete advisory committee, announce the fulfillment of his wish to travel to Aruba to scuba dive at Seton Hill University in Greensburg on Saturday, April 22, 2017.
Brady Hunker, 15, right, hugs his father, Chris Hunker, after a surprise Make-A-Wish fulfillment of his wish to travel to Aruba at Seton Hill University in Greensburg on Saturday, April 22, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Brady Hunker, 15, right, hugs his father, Chris Hunker, after a surprise Make-A-Wish fulfillment of his wish to travel to Aruba at Seton Hill University in Greensburg on Saturday, April 22, 2017.
Brady Hunker, center,  shakes hands with the Seton Hill baseball team after a surprise Make-A-Wish fulfillment of his wish to travel to Aruba in between a baseball double header at Seton Hill University in Greensburg on Saturday, April 22, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Brady Hunker, center, shakes hands with the Seton Hill baseball team after a surprise Make-A-Wish fulfillment of his wish to travel to Aruba in between a baseball double header at Seton Hill University in Greensburg on Saturday, April 22, 2017.
Brady Hunker, a 15-year-old cancer survivor, poses with family and others after after a surprise Make-A-Wish fulfillment of his wish to travel to Aruba at Seton Hill University in Greensburg on Saturday, April 22, 2017.
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Brady Hunker, a 15-year-old cancer survivor, poses with family and others after after a surprise Make-A-Wish fulfillment of his wish to travel to Aruba at Seton Hill University in Greensburg on Saturday, April 22, 2017.

When Brady Hunker's leg first became sore in 2016, he thought he had simply pulled a muscle.

After all, the Westmoreland County teen raced BMX bikes and belonged to three hockey teams.

Then his right leg became noticeably larger than his left. Medical tests confirmed he had a tumor the size of a brick.

“July 11 was pretty much the day that changed my life,” Brady said.

Diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare childhood bone cancer, he spent the next eight months in surgery to replace part of a bone and getting chemotherapy and radiation therapy to kill the cancer, which had spread to nodules in his lungs.

A sophomore at Mt. Pleasant Area High School, Brady returned to class last week after being out all year. Now, he looks forward to a week in Aruba courtesy of Make-A-Wish of Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia and the fundraising efforts of athletes at Seton Hill University.

The university's Student Athlete Advisory Committee presented Brady with an enlarged boarding pass last weekend.

Committee members spent last year raising money to grant a wish, said Emily Hutsko, committee president. Once it raised enough, the Make-A-Wish organization matched the group with Brady.

“This is the first time we've raised enough money to grant a wish, so it's exciting,” said Hutsko, 22, a senior from Harrisburg who is studying biology and psychology.

The committee raised more than $8,300 — the second-highest amount by a group in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and eighth-highest of 238 schools in NCAA Division II, said university President Mary Finger.

Brady's diagnosis stunned the family, said his mother, Jen Hunker. He had been playing hockey for 10 years and, the week before he was diagnosed, he and his father made a 348-mile bike trip on the rails-to-trails from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.

“He's crazy active,” Jen Hunker said. “We thought he was building muscle more quickly in that leg than the other leg.”

A social worker at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC approached Brady shortly after the diagnosis about adding him to the Make-A-Wish program. He thought the program was reserved for “really sick kids” and didn't see how he could qualify, his mother said.

“I think it was really shocking for him,” she said. “He didn't think he was that sick.”

Once he started thinking about making a wish, he settled on choosing a “beachy area” and started researching islands, she said.

Brady said it was an easy choice.

“That's where my parents went on their honeymoon,” he said. “I've always heard incredible stories about it, that it's just an incredible place to go.”

The family plans to take the trip during the Christmas holiday, a welcome break from cold weather, Brady said.

During the trip, he plans to take a diving tour of the SS Antilles, a shipwreck off the coast of the Caribbean Island. He also plans to do some quad riding, wakeboarding and hang out around the water.

In his immediate future, he has a surgery consult to check the condition of his leg and then physical therapy.

“Soon after, I'll be how I was before,” he said.

In addition to the Make-A-Wish effort, friends, classmates and neighbors have pitched in to help the family, Jen Hunker said.

The Calumet Fire Department held a spaghetti dinner to raise money for the family, as did a group of friends who held a dinner at Mt. Pleasant Area High School. Classmates organized a fundraising talent show, and friends held a pancake breakfast at Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church, she said.

Their church, New Stanton United Methodist, donated iTunes gift cards, a guitar and other items. And, after he said Oreo cookies were his favorite, the family received 24 boxes.

“We just want to say thank you to everyone in our community,” she said.

Brian Bowling is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1218, bbowling@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TribBrian.

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