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With help from her St. Jude team, standout softball phenom Ciara Ginet wins the most decisive game of her life.
As third baseman for a competitive softball league, Ciara Ginet was used to handling sharply hit line drives. Since her introduction to the sport at age 4, Ciara relished playing third base—a position known as the “hot corner” because of the high velocity of balls hit to that spot. Despite arduous training, nothing compared with what careened Ciara’s way not once, but twice in the past two years.
In late 2006, Ciara faced a rare cancer called ovarian dysgerminoma. After surgery and a year of remission, the softball star was thrown another curve when the cancer returned. With courage and resolve, Ciara battled the disease, winning the most important game of her life.
“Ciara doesn’t play softball,” says her mother, Bobbi Ginet. “Ciara breathes softball.”
It took crippling abdominal pain during a tournament in Cincinnati to get then–10-year-old Ciara off the field. At a local hospital, doctors diagnosed a viral infection. In days, the pain subsided and Ciara was ready to get back in the game.
During the next year, that scene occurred several more times. “Another hospital said it was diverticulitis (a digestive disease) and prescribed medicine,” Bobbi remembers. In November 2006, after two trips to the hospital in one week, Bobbi demanded answers. “I thought that she was too young for diverticulitis and told them that I wasn’t leaving until they found out what was wrong with my child.”
An ultrasound revealed that Ciara’s left ovary had twisted. In the operating room, surgeons removed the unhealthy tissue, sparing a small piece of her left ovary. A pathology report found the tissue contained a germ cell tumor, identified as ovarian dysgerminoma.
With the cancer diagnosis, Ciara was referred to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“Germ cell tumors are rare,” says Lisa McGregor, MD, PhD, of St. Jude Oncology. “They occur at a rate of 2.4 tumors per million children and represent 1 percent of cancer diagnosed in people younger than 15 years old.”
While the type of cancer is rare, St. Jude has treatment plans for the disease and treats an average of five patients a year with different types of germ cell tumor in the chest and abdomen. For patients like Ciara, who have localized gonadal tumors, long-term survival rates are high.
“The cancer diagnosis was overwhelming, and we were in shock and terrified,” Bobbi says. “But once we got to St. Jude, the support was unbelievable. They helped us understand what we were facing. They gave us books, explained treatments, told us cure rates—they basically gave us a crash course in oncology. It was an overnight relief.”
In addition to the emotional support, Ciara’s father, Ron Ginet, remembers the relief of learning that they would never receive a bill for his daughter’s care. “When they told me I wouldn’t get a bill, I thought that I misheard,” Ron recalls. “I actually said, ‘Can you repeat that?’”
After St. Jude surgeons removed the remaining portion of Ciara’s left ovary, there was no sign of cancer. The Ginets were also thankful to learn that Ciara still had the chance to have children one day.
“We didn’t find any evidence of tumor remaining or any evidence that the tumor had spread in her body,” McGregor says. “At that point, she didn’t need any other therapy, and it was a case of monitoring.”
With the prognosis, Ciara threw herself back into the life she knew before the episodes of pain, returning to St. Jude for periodic checkups. Back up to speed, Ciara spent the next year following a rigorous schedule of school, practice and tournaments. Her skill on the field at 12 years old even earned her an invitation to play on a league with high school players.
“Ciara is a fighter and always bounces back,” Bobbi says.
Ciara showed no signs of illness in late 2007 when a routine checkup revealed unwelcome news. The cancer had returned in lymph nodes around one of Ciara’s kidneys.
The Ginets were devastated. “I didn’t know what to think,” Bobbi says. “I didn’t know what to say.”
McGregor mapped out a treatment plan for Ciara that included chemotherapy and surgery.
With heavy hearts, the Ginets returned home. “I tried to stay strong as we were talking to Dr. McGregor,” Bobbi says. “But when we got home, we had our cries. Ciara remembered the pain and the surgery from the first time and was so scared.”
Ron, who had always been Ciara’s loudest fan when she was on the field, tried to reassure her: “I wish I could take the pain for you, but I can’t. This might make you feel sick, but it is going to make you better also,” he told her.
Ciara started her treatment with six weeks of chemotherapy. As hair loss and nausea began to take their toll, she remained upbeat.
“I like to think that I’m the strong one, and I have to be that for her—but she always ends up showing me how much stronger she is than everyone else,” Bobbi says. “She still tried to get out and play. She was losing her hair, wearing a mask to protect her weakened immune system and tossing the ball around in the backyard.”
The operation to remove the affected lymph nodes was successful, but recovery was tough. One post-surgery issue led to another. In less than two weeks, Ciara coped with a collapsed lung, a blood transfusion, a viral infection and debilitating blisters. But the athlete didn’t remain on the bench for long.
“One day, she was in bed looking so pitiful,” Ron recalls. “The next day, it was like she had decided that she was done lying in bed. I walked in the room and she said, ‘Hi, Dad!’ and was up and moving around on crutches.”
St. Jude Child Life specialist Cara Sisk recalls the day doctors gave Ciara permission to play softball again. “It was in mid-week when they told her, and that was it for Ciara,” Sisk says. “By that Saturday, she was playing in an all-day tournament. She didn’t just go out and play one game; she went out there and played with her team the whole day.”
On the softball field, Ciara had her share of supporters to cheer her on during games, but during treatment, that fan base grew. The group originated with Ciara’s classmates; expanded to include friends of her older brother, Michael; and eventually spread throughout their entire hometown.
Ciara’s teammates volunteered their time to clean out the air conditioner vents at the Ginets’ home as well as to apply a fresh coat of paint to the interior rooms. A nearby university issued an invitation to the Ginets to visit its softball team—an especially thrilling treat for Ciara, who had been a longtime fan.
After Ciara finished her chemotherapy treatments in April 2008 and was told that she would only have to return for checkups, her hometown raised money to send the family on a surprise vacation—a Caribbean cruise. When the Ginets returned from the trip, they found their neighbors painting the exterior of their house. “There have been so many prayers, thoughtful acts,” Bobbi says. “The support has been unimaginable.”
Ciara is still sparkling on the softball diamond, as she has transitioned from the outfield to the infield, where she plays second base. She’s returned to the game she loves and breathes and is still playing with passion—as illustrated by a broken arm she suffered in a recent game. Her spirit and her love for softball have not been broken—and despite having two strikes of cancer, she’s still in the batter’s box, eyeing that home run pitch.
Reprinted from Promise Autumn 2008
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