Charter Oak High School

Charter Oak student-athlete battles cancer

Dec. 5, 2014, is the date that changed Charter Oak senior Anthony Ortega’s life forever. Anthony was going through what was a normal day until he was in his second period Economics class.

“I was in second period, and my friend Ryan Hansen pointed out that I had a ball on my neck,” Ortega said. “I felt it and realized it was about the size of my palm.”

“We were in class and it was about to end, and I saw this lump on his neck. He told me that it was from getting hit in basketball a few days before, but I told him to get it checked out,” said Hansen, a senior classmate and friend of Ortega.

Ortega then went to his basketball coach, Randy Thatcher, and told him about the lump on his neck. “I was one of the first ones who saw him and knew something was wrong; I was worried for him and told him to go to a doctor immediately,” said Coach Thatcher.

Ortega went to the doctor, and they ran tests on his lump all throughout December. He had a biopsy done during the last week of school before winter break, and on Christmas Day, Ortega was told that he had Stage 1 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I was shocked, I couldn’t believe it,” said Ortega on receiving the news.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a form of cancer that develops from white blood cells also known as lymphocytes. It is characterized by the orderly spread of the disease from one group of lymph nodes to another and, in later stages, fever, night sweats, and weight loss. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, especially when found in the early stages, is treatable with either chemotherapy or radiation therapy and has a survival rate of 85%.

Ortega was told he had to begin chemotherapy on Jan. 9. He was told he could no longer play basketball and it was recommended that he be home-schooled for the remainder of the year. However, Ortega did not want to miss his final semester of high school. He wanted to graduate from Charter Oak, so he decided to stay in school. “I wanted to participate in all my senior activities,” said Ortega on his reasoning for not leaving.

“I thought that was a very interesting decision on his part,” said Coach Thatcher. “Lots of students would love to suddenly miss school, but Anthony wanted to be with his fellow students. He has to be tough and he puts on a tough front, but he doesn’t always show that he’s really hurting to everyone. I’m happy for him, if he had stayed home, I think he would be thinking on the bad instead of the support that everyone has given him here.”

Ortega played his last basketball game on Jan. 7 in a home game against Nogales High. It was a back and forth affair the whole night, and the score was dead even at 48 with 10 seconds left. Charter Oak guard Amier Thomas took the ball down the court, and he set up a pick-and-roll which left Ortega with a wide open lane to the basket. He made the easy layup for the win in his final game. “It was a good moment. It was something I won’t ever forget in my four years of playing basketball here,” said Ortega. “It was a great feeling.”

“First I was really happy for the team because it was a great team win,” said Coach Thatcher. “I was also really happy for Anthony. He’s an emotional guy, so it meant a lot for him to do something for his teammates. There was a lot of joy and a lot of tears.”

After the Nogales game, it became known to the entire school that Ortega had cancer. What followed was an outpouring of support throughout the school. Students have not only given emotional support, but some have even donated to Ortega’s fundraiser to help his family pay the medical bill, started by head basketball Coach Brandon Cunningham. The team has also begun selling T-shirts in support, and all the proceeds will be donated to the Ortega family.

“I think support is more important than anything else for him, there’s nothing else we can do but pray and think good thoughts,” said Coach Thatcher. “I think he needs as much of it as possible and it will help him. The battle is far from over, he’ll be fighting for at least six more months.”

“Everyone’s been very supportive of me and telling me that everything is going to be alright, and that I’ll be back to normal in a few months,” said Ortega. “It really means a lot.”

The basketball team honored Ortega during Senior Night on Feb. 13, and is encouraging as many of his classmates and friends as possible to show up in support of him during the pregame ceremony. Ortega’s shirts are being sold for $12 at all the basketball games and can also be purchased through Coach Thatcher. The fundraiser for the Ortega family can be found at http://www.gofundme.com/21club