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High School Sports

Upper St. Clair senior battles back from bout with cancer

JoAnne Klimovich Harrop
| Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2003

Upper St. Clair senior Greg Stehura doesn't use his head on the soccer field, but that's OK.

Stehura was diagnosed with an cancerous tumor at the base of his skull last April but has fought back to start tonight for Upper St. Clair (20-3-1) which plays Mt. Lebanon (17-6-1) in a PIAA Class AAA semifinal at 8 p.m. at Elizabeth Forward.

The cancer is in remission as doctors were able to dissolve the tumor, which had grown inside a bone and surrounded the spinal cord, with chemotherapy. But fear the trauma from heading a soccer ball might cause additional damage.

Dr. David Adelson, a professor of neurosurgery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, is Stehura's physician.

"In heading a soccer ball, we worry about the bone because it is not as good as it was," Adelson said. "It is more of a preventive measure for him to not head the ball."

While headers have been taken away, Stehura is enjoying his shot at continuing his career and being one step from a chance at a state championship.

"I want it to last as long as possible because I most likely won't play competitive soccer after this," said Stehura, a forward, who has been playing since age 4.

He was diagnosed with B cell lymphoma in mid April. Surgery to remove the tumor was dangerous because of its location inside the bone and close to the spinal cord, so chemotherapy was administered. He underwent four, week-long treatments and spent an additional week in the hospital because of a high fever.

"When they called and said the tumor was malignant, that was the worst," Stehura's mother, Kathy, said. "They didn't tell us anything else but to be at the hospital the next morning at 8 a.m. to start chemo. I tried to be strong for him. It was especially hard when he was so sick in bed and could not move."

Peters Township coach Rob Eldridge, whose team played against section 5-AAA rival Upper St. Clair, said Stehura is an inspiration.

"A lot of kids haven't had to test their will like Greg has," Eldridge said. "Most kids don't encounter something like this until later in life. Greg has shown strong will and perseverance - the same strong will and perseverance he has shown on the soccer field. He is the kind of player a coach would love to have."

Upper St. Clair coach Uwe Schneider echoed Eldridge's sentiments.

Schneider told Greg he would be part of this year's team in whatever capacity he could handle.

Greg was concerned he might not be able to return to 100 percent, but he has. He is the fastest player on the team.

"I think he is playing better this year than last," Schneider said. "I think this whole experience has brought my team closer together."

Getting back on the field for his final high school season was one of the motivating factors during the treatments and pain. Prior to the diagnosis, Greg spent nearly a year in agony until he couldn't move his neck.

"I was shocked when I heard cancer, because I thought it was nothing," he said.

Instead of waiting for the hair on his head to fall out from chemotherapy, he shaved it ahead of time. He still needs to be examined every six months.

"The last two chemotherapy treatments were the worst," said Greg, who had tubes inserted in his chest for months to administer the chemotherapy. "I was stuck in my (hospital) room for one week straight. It helped being able to talk to other kids going through the same thing."

One of his best days was when he got clearance to return to the field - the day before the team left for training camp in August.

"I wonder why it had to happen to me," he said. "But I just decided the best thing to do was to just deal with it. I am happy to be playing soccer.

Adelson said he has seen other cases where sports have motivated patients.

"Sports can be a very positive thing for these young people," said Adelson, who has been at Children's nine and half years. "We encourage them to get back to their activities as best as they can based on their strength and stamina. It is kind of like (five-time Tour de France champion) Lance Armstrong (who overcame cancer). Suddenly victories become much sweeter, and the work and training is not drudgery."

Greg was fortunate the cancer did not affect his neurological function, Adelson said, and that the chemotherapy worked instead of having to have the tumor removed and then fuse the neck. This particular cancer is not hereditary, Adelson said, and rare that it showed up where it did.

"Seeing kids like Greg who have a good outcome makes this a very satisfying job," Adelson said.

There was a time his parents and doctors thought he might be done with soccer. The homemade cards from younger sister Kelley, 6, helped make the hospital stays a little easier. It is still hard for Kathy Stehura to watch a ball go toward her son's head in fear he might head it. Greg said he is aware he can't do that. He uses his feet instead. He scored a goal in a WPIAL quarterfinal against Pine-Richland after spending most of the day at the doctor and has six goals this season.

"I have no idea how he had the energy to play and score a goal," Kathy Stehura said. "Sometimes I just sit back and can't believe what he went through and how he returned to play soccer. The chemo just wiped him out sometimes. I think the whole experience has given him and us a new perspective on life."

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