As local students fight cancer, their families unite through the journey
It had been a long time since Joe and Lori Falci made the drive to Hershey Medical Center.
This spring, the initial trip with their son, Peter, became routine — as it has for countless families and their children battling cancer. The Falcis know a few of them, including Dover's Maddie Hill and her parents, and Marcus Josey at Northeastern and his family. Like Peter, a recent Central York graduate, these teens played high school sports in York County.
Peter, 18, is recovering from embryonal carcinoma. When the Falcis learned in early June after his last chemotherapy treatment that he looked cancer-free, they couldn't wait to share the news. Especially with their friends, the Hills and Joseys, who know the plight.
"To tell them, it's bittersweet," Lori Falci said, "because I know they're hoping and praying for good news."
The relief can't be absolute, Joe Falci admitted. He knows his son will always have to live with his guard up against cancer. The same goes for the Hills and Joseys.
During the Falcis' first visit to Hershey Medical Center in late February, they were asked if this was their first time to the facility. Joe and Lori looked at each other.
They lost a daughter when she was 1.
Each trip back to Hershey for treatments was difficult, Lori Falci said, whether for her son or her friends' children. Attempts at comfort came in many forms, they discovered. Classmates started with social media campaigns on Twitter. Fundraisers soon followed.
They also have each other.
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High school: Central York
Desired college major: Marine biology at Coastal Carolina, after a semester at Penn State York
What he's fought: Embryonal carcinoma, a form of testicular cancer. It occurs in males between their late teens and early 30s.
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In a way, the Falci family has connections throughout York County.
Joe Falci's father owned a barbershop and salon where Dawn Hill once worked, long before she married Maddie's father, Scott.
Six years ago, the Falcis bought a pizza shop in Mount Wolf. It's been a regular stop for the Joseys when they want a pie.
News spread quickly in late February that Peter was stricken with cancer.
"How's Peter doing?" Joe Falci recalled Marcus asking during a stop to their shop.
"All of a sudden we're finding out that Marcus is sick," Falci continued.
And while worrying for their daughter Maddie's health, Scott and Dawn Hill read in the newspaper about the Falcis' tribulation.
Joe Falci says no one can understand that feeling except others who experience it. That is why his wife usually exchanges daily text messages with Dawn Hill and Andrea Josey.
Peter Falci's treatments lasted until the end of May. About a month in, he went for a walk one night around the hospital with his father. An hour passed, and Lori Falci worried where they went. They found Marcus and his father, Jamiel Josey — or the Joseys found them. Marcus and his dad called to the Falcis. Joe Falci said, at first, he wondered why they were there. Then he noticed the oncology tag on Marcus.
Peter and Marcus knew each other only as high school sports rivals. Lori Falci said the boys now hug at every meeting, from Hershey to Peter's July graduation party.
"I used to hate him because he was so tenacious on the basketball court," Marcus said. "We're pretty good friends now."
After Peter's three months of chemotherapy, a reprieve came from his doctor. The tumor, once the size of an apricot, shrank to 0.08 centimeters and could be just scar tissue now. But Joe Falci said the family learned a chilling caveat during one of Peter's visits after his last chemotherapy treatment: The tumor resided near his kidney. If it grows back, doctors must remove it.
"Although we're out of the woods now, I don't know if we're out of the woods completely," Joe Falci said.
This summer, Peter is getting back to life as he knew it. He missed all of school from his February diagnosis to June graduation. With enough credits to graduate, he still attended prom but nearly missed senior week. After his last treatment and CT scan, Joe and Lori Falci surprised him with a spur-of-the-moment drive to Ocean City, Md.
At first, Mom and Dad weren't going to let him go.
"He had been antsy the whole weekend," Joe Falci said. "I think he was bummed out but more nervous about the scan."
By July, Peter could work out again. He started with light walks on the treadmill and gradually progressed to lifting weights.
He spent July 4 with family and friends at home for a late but deserved graduation party. The next stage of life is college, and Peter wants to major in marine biology. He will begin with a semester locally, then hopes to transfer. Maybe Coastal Carolina, the College of Charleston or South Florida, where his desired major is offered.
Like senior week in Ocean City, Peter's parents are going to let him do it.
"A year ago, we would have said you're not applying to South Florida," his father said, "but now we're saying if that's what you think you want to do, do it."
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High school: Dover
Desired college major: Kinesiology at Penn State
What she's fought: Lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, when she was 8. In 2013, a blood disorder developed with her bone marrow called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). Past chemotherapy treatment or radiation therapy can affect the risk of MDS.
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Dawn Hill admits she once didn't think her daughter would get this far.
Maddie Hill walked at her graduation from Dover Area Senior High School in June, received her diploma and gave a speech. This wasn't supposed to happen back in April, when Maddie's doctors deemed her bone marrow transplant a failure.
"They pretty much sent us home with no hope, basically," Dawn Hill said. "Maddie is a fighter. She wasn't giving up and we weren't giving up."
Dawn Hill called her daughter's recovery the last few months "miraculous." Maddie Hill's battles began with lymphoblastic lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, when she was 8.
By August 2013, just after celebrating Maddie's five-year anniversary clear of the lymphoma and before her junior year on the Dover soccer team, everything changed.
A blood disorder with Maddie's bone marrow called myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) ended her celebration of good health. Maddie received a bone marrow transplant Nov. 15, 2013, from her younger brother, Travis. She recovered, returned to school and even got back to the soccer team the next fall.
But her one-year checkup revealed the MDS returned.
The 18-year-old has battled cancer on three occasions, the most recent fight stretching well into this year.
The success of a bone marrow transplant is measured through a Chimerism test, which tells how much of the donor's DNA is still present in a recipient's blood sample. Travis' donation registered at 55 percent during Maddie's one-year checkup, which first raised concern and only worsened. Travis' donation decreased to 12 percent, as Maddie remained in the hospital from December to April for all but part of Christmas Eve and Day.
During this time, Maddie kept up with her school work in the hospital. She was accepted to Penn State and in February received an honorary degree, an unexpected gesture for the family.
Dawn and Scott Hill placed that degree on a chair near her bed in Hershey. It was the first thing she saw one day after waking up.
"How did you get this?" she asked her parents.
Scott Hill later told his daughter, "You have to go get the real thing."
That is the plan, Dawn Hill said. Maddie might spend the fall taking classes closer to home. If all goes to plan, she could be at Penn State's main campus as soon as next spring.
Dawn Hill worries about her daughter's stamina.
"There's a lot of walking, and it's not what it was before," she said of Maddie's potential stamina at State College.
Maddie plans to major in kinesiology. She wants to be an occupational therapist.
"It's more about getting back to daily tasks living life," Maddie said.
She is just getting back to that for herself. High school graduation was one step.
"I was glad I got to walk across the stage with my friends," Maddie said. "Back in February, we didn't know if that was going to be an option."
She continues to fight. This summer has brought two more stays in the hospital.
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Photo: Northeastern senior Marcus Josey, center, chats with Peter Falci at Falci's graduation party on July 4 in Manchester Township. While Falci plans to attend college and major in marine biology, Josey hopes to return to high school classes early next year and someday pursue oncology. Dover's Maddie Hill plans to major in kinesiology at Penn State as soon as next year. (Chris Dunn -- GameTimePA.com)
High school: Northeastern
Sports: Football, basketball
Desired college major: Oncology
What he's fought: Acute lymphocytic leukemia, which is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. ALL is the most common type of cancer in children.
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Walking to receive his high school diploma next June with classmates is still a goal for Marcus Josey. Even though he has three more years of chemotherapy left, the 17-year-old hopes to be back in the classroom around January.
He has a home-bound teacher who visits when Marcus feels up to it. Those days fluctuated the last four months since his April diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Each Monday, Jamiel and Andrea Josey take their son to Hershey for treatments. His blood count must first be high enough to receive treatment that day. If not, Marcus feels well. He was up for an impromptu trip to Hersheypark with complimentary tickets from the Ronald McDonald House after missing one blood count.
"His platelets change all the time," Andrea Josey said.
Photo: Northeastern's Marcus Josey drives to the basket during a District 3 basketball tournament consolation game in February against Central York at Northern York High School. The game turned out to be Peter Falci's last high school game and, in April, Josey was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. (File -- GameTimePA.com)
Their life as a family took a drastic turn with Marcus' illness. Andrea and Jamiel Josey both work in the York City School District and moved to the area from Philadelphia a few months after Marcus' birth. Andrea said she wasn't sure they would have stayed in the area past his high school graduation, but this diagnosis changed that.
He is one of seven children. The others were either adopted or have stayed long enough that they are considered family, usually students who otherwise would have been homeless.
That practice started with Rahim, who is now 29 and works as a project manager restoring bridges around the East Coast. Andrea Josey calls him "by far our biggest success story and pride as far as a kid who was a throwaway kid. No one thought could make it."
Andrea taught him as a fifth-grade student in Philadelphia. She and Jamiel adopted him as their first child.
"What led us to that? All I can think of is nothing was planned," Andrea Josey said. "I never thought I'd adopt kids. I think things fell into place."
Starting with Rahim, who graduated from Millersville with a pre-law degree, the Joseys became a launching pad for their children. It continued with Charita, who's also 29, to Robert, 28, to Hannibal, 27, to recent Northeastern graduate Kirstin.
Marcus wanted to get into neurology but has changed his mind in recent months to oncology. Marcus tells his family and friends he's "ahead of the game" because of this leukemia.
His goal was to attend an Ivy League school, and the Joseys thought his only way to get there financially was supplemental help from playing football. Marcus played quarterback at Northeastern, starting as a sophomore before sitting out most of last year because of an injury.
Not only was he ready to come back this fall, but Andrea Josey said his guidance counselor received a letter from Harvard the day Marcus went to the hospital.
"This is not what you're supposed to be doing when your kid was being recruited by Ivy League schools," Andrea Josey said.
She checks him every night, wary Marcus might catch a fever.
"Heck, I used to have a heart attack if he had a cold," she said. "It wasn't like he was ever sick."
The first few weeks of July were better. Not only was Marcus' blood count high enough to receive chemotherapy, but he wasn't getting as sick from it.
"I'm on what seems to be the hardest chemo for me," he said. "I'm not feeling the side effects yet."
His parents worry about August and September, and the effects of those tougher treatments. Marcus' friends at school coined the Twitter hashtag "MarcuStrong" to support him on social media. He's exhibited that strength by being a mentor to a young boy, Elliot, who was diagnosed at the same time with the same disease as him.
"We experience the same symptoms at the same time," Marcus said. "He's also adopted. I have six siblings who are all adopted. We had a connection."
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Photo: Andrea Josey, center, catches up with Lori Falci at a July 4 graduation party for Falci's son in Manchester Township. The mothers keep in contact. "There's a bond between cancer moms and dads I can't describe," Josey said. "No one else can understand." (Chris Dunn -- GameTimePA.com)
By midnight or so each night, Andrea Josey or Lori Falci will text message the other. Topics vary for two mothers who met in Hershey Medical Center.
The night before Marcus went to the hospital, Jamiel Josey had just bought a pizza from the Falcis' shop and saw Joe Falci there. The next night, they met in a Hershey hallway.
The families have become a part of each other.
The Falcis celebrated Peter's high school graduation and clean bill of health with a July 4 party. Everyone was invited, including Marcus, Maddie and their families.
"There's a bond between cancer moms and dads I can't describe," Andrea Josey said. "No one else can understand."
Contact Matt Goul at 771-2045.