Charlie Capalbo plays Xbox online with his brother Will and his buddies, because that’s what you do when you’re a college kid. His girlfriend Peyton Siegel sits nearby with the support that means so much in a flourishing relationship. He watches hockey on TV with his dad, because, well, that’s what dads and sons do.
His mom Jenny is the forever rock.
Even as he ended five days of intense treatment, Charlie Capalbo had only one favor to ask Wednesday. To tag his Instagram account @ccapalbo_ (he’s looking to get at least 3,000 followers).
That’s because no matter what life deals him, the 22-year-old former goalie from Fairfield plans on being around an awfully long time. And after all we have seen, all we have witnessed, who among us can doubt him?
Charlie is back at Boston Children’s Hospital and as family friend John McCormick said on a GoFundMe page he started for the Capalbos, “We can’t sugar-coat this, the third battle is going to be the toughest.”
Charlie fought off cancer once. A tumor the size of a softball was found lodged between his heart and lung in 2017 as he was completing his high school hockey season at Fairfield Ludlowe. He was diagnosed with T Lymphoblastic Lymphoma Stage 3. Charlie fought it with all he had. Thirty-six months of chemotherapy, extensive physical therapy, he never returned to high school, but he returned to the rest of his life.
Charlie fought off cancer twice. A month after he started at Fairfield University in October 2018, new cancer cells were found in his spinal fluid. This time it was leukemia. Chemo again. High-dose chemo. Jenny moved to Boston to be with her son, Anthony Capalbo driving up and back three times a week for months to be with his son. Again, he fought it with all he had. Charlie would need a bone marrow transplant.
A match was found. It was his brother.
Will had felt so helpless before, “and now there was this,” Anthony said of the full bone marrow transplant on Feb. 4, 2019.
Will saved Charlie’s life. There can be no closer bond between brothers.
Charlie’s fights with cancer would become public and folks from all over were inspired. Considerable money was raised for a family in need. Hockey sticks were placed outside of doors in support of a kid so tough they say he eats “no” for breakfast. Regular sticks. Goalie sticks. Some crossed. Some with messages attached.
Meanwhile, here was Charlie bald from chemo. Charlie learning to feed himself. Charlie fighting for his first steps. And then here was Charlie with a full head of hair, handsome and strong again. On Dec. 29, 2019 to celebrate his remission, 550 people jammed the Fairfield Theatre Company for the Capalbo Strong Crushed Cancer event to raise funds for Boston Children’s Hospital. This was the family’s way of giving back for all the support they had received.
There was no better story.
And when Charlie and the family were invited to the NHL Winter Classic last February at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, NBC did a feature on him. Folks across North America would know that story.
He came home from college after COVID hit last March, finished his semester online. He had a good summer and returned online at Fairfield in the fall. Charlie got an apartment rental around the corner from the family home. He did some work for Anthony’s brother-in-law, a physical therapist, and for a COVID testing company where Jenny had started working.
“Everything was great,” Anthony said. “But in November he started getting pain in his elbow and shoulder, more when he was laying down. We began trying to figure out what was going on. Then the pain went to his hips and knees. It became more constant.
“His transplant doctors, every time Charlie was checked was getting better and better. Even until now the blood work was good.”
Doctors locally and at Boston Children’s kept looking for an answer. They didn’t think it was the cancer. The pain kept getting worse and worse. Anthony said Charlie isn’t one to complain. After all he has been through, all his body has endured, what others may call an 8 on the 1-10 pain scale, he may call a 4.
So was it arthritis? Something rheumatoid? Some post-transplant disease? What was it?
The problem wasn’t found in the blood, it was in the spinal fluid where the second cancer had been found. They did a spinal tap and bone biopsy at Jenny’s urging. The doctors found those same cancer cells had built up at the base of his spine where so many nerves come together. That explained the spreading pain.
The diagnosis last Wednesday was a relapse of CNS AML. Imaging showed chloromas, solid collections of leukemic cells and tumors. It’s hard to call Charlie Capalbo lucky, but with the size and location of the chloroma there could have been paralysis.
McCormick in his GoFundMe statement wrote the Capalbos, knowing all the families that been struck by COVID-19 by deaths, illness, loss of jobs, were hesitant to allow him to re-issue the page. This does not lessen their great medical costs and living expenses. Anthony lost his job at the beginning of COVID and is just getting his real estate career off the ground.
“You’re devastated once, you’re devastated twice, the third time you’re even more devastated, if that’s possible,” Anthony said.
“On the flip side, we had a crazy amount of support spiritually and financially the first time, again the second time and now what’s going on is completely insane. The sticks, the GoFundMe, Facebook, email, texts …
Anthony’s voice trails off. It is the emotion of a dad simultaneously hurting and eternally thankful.
Charlie was admitted to Boston Children’s immediately upon diagnosis. Starting Friday, he began a five-day treatment plan with intrathecal chemo (lumbar punctures, to put chemo into the spinal fluid) with systemic daily IV infusion chemo treatments, steroids and chemo pills. All that while trying to manage nausea and pain. He will be in the hospital, Anthony said, for at least two more weeks. There’s an upcoming MRI to analyze the progress.
How is Charlie doing?
“Pretty good,” Anthony said. “Naturally he has some down quiet moments, but we try to stay occupied.”
Xbox with friends; mom, dad, Peyton, hockey, yes, he has spiritual soldiers and online wingmen with him. Will is attending Albertus Magnus, looking to play lacrosse. So he isn’t at home like last time and Anthony doesn’t have to travel back and forth, trying to be both places at once. Will has been up to Boston already, arriving and leaving with either mom or dad. And Peyton? Anthony called her a godsend.
“When the results were found (last Wednesday) the doctors told us they were worried, but hopeful,” Anthony said. Within a few weeks, the doctors will be able to see if the treatment is working, if the cancer cells are responding.
“The first few days naturally it was difficult to complete a sentence,” Anthony said. “We were so devastated. And mad. Mad that it took so long to figure it out. Mad that it happened. Mad at the people who saved your son’s life the first time. But you put that aside and move forward.
“I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you a week ago. I would have been bawling like a baby. You take a few days to process it. You take a deep breath and do what you have to do. You accept all the love and support. You move forward and say ‘it’s going to be OK.’”
After what we’ve seen, what we witnessed from @ccapalbo who among us can doubt it?
[email protected]; @jeffjacobs123
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