A little more than a year ago, 23-year-old U.S. Marine Eric Kelly was contemplating a return with his platoon to Afghanistan when he noticed a strange lump growing on his neck. Then his left eye started to tear up.
Doctors at the Naval hospital in Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he was stationed, thought he had conjunctivitis, then mono, then sinusitis. Kelly was unconvinced. “I had conjunctivitis as a kid,” he said. “It doesn’t make a lump grow out of your neck.” He was fighting terrible headaches and then his face started to sag, “like I’d had a stroke.”
On a trip to see his family in Southeastern Massachusetts, he received a biopsy at Faulkner Hospital. And on September 15, 2011, he finally got the right diagnosis. The lump on his neck was stage 3 Rhabdomyosarcoma, and it was spreading into his sinus cavity and brain. “I didn’t want to believe it,” Eric remembered.
Eric and his family had already been through so much, and the diagnosis was an added blow. His father was also a Marine, as was his older brother, who served in Iraq. At one point they thought his brother had been killed in action. Eric himself enlisted at 19, unsure of what he wanted after a year of college; he thought he’d find inspiration and money for school in the military.
After boot camp, he was assigned to the 2nd Battalion 6th Marine Regiment Echo Co. His first deployment took him to Marjah, Afghanistan for seven months, where his platoon was the “most engaged” since 2000, he said. About 30 percent of his squad was wounded, and five men were killed. His team leader was shot in the throat, right in front of him, and died. “It was pretty crazy,” Eric said, somberly. “I saw a lot.”
The idea that he could survive combat in Afghanistan only to come home and find out he had cancer seemed unfathomable. “I just broke down in tears, I had already been through so much,” he said. But he knows these ironies happen. “You can make it through deployment and then get hit by a car.”
At first he was angry, but he quickly steeled himself for his next battle; he met with doctors at Dana-Farber, ready to fight. His treatment plan was intense: six weeks of radiation, followed by months of chemotherapy. In the last week of radiation, he spent 10 days in the hospital with mouth and eye sores, and infections. He couldn’t eat and had to have a feeding tube inserted. His parents thought he might die. But he pulled through.
Before his hospitalization, Eric received a surprise visit at home from Joe Andruzzi, who connected with Eric’s father through Dana-Farber. “I thought, who is this big guy coming into my house?” Eric said, laughing. He and Joe talked about cancer, the Patriots, the military. And Joe gave Eric a jersey and photo and invited him to the Joe Andruzzi Foundation’s fall gala, which he was able to attend before getting too sick.
This spring, Joe surprised Eric again with a new motorized Polaris bike to scoot around on. The bike, donated to the Foundation, came just when Eric was starting to feel like himself again. “Joe’s the man,” he said. “Visiting Bethesda (to watch the Super Bowl with wounded veterans every year), he’s seen a lot – triple amputees, guys with their legs blown off. I really respect how much he cares.”
Now, Eric’s on the road to recovery. In February, after six months of getting all his nutrition through a tube, he was able to start eating again. He started with oatmeal and has worked up to cheeseburgers. He’s working out again and hanging out with friends. He no longer sleeps all day.
“All I want is hair and eyebrows back, and Buffalo Chicken pizza,” he joked. Spicy food still burns his mouth and he really looks forward to eating his favorite pizza again.
As for his military career, Eric was scheduled for release in October; now, he’s waiting on a medical review board for discharge. It was very tough to see his friends – who visited him in Massachusetts – go back to Afghanistan without him last year, he said. “Those are my boys, my family. When you sign up, you join motivated to become a Marine. But then you want to go back for the guy to the left and right of you. It’s not an Oorah kind of thing.”
But, he added, “my hooking and jabbing days (in the Marines) are over.”
Eric is still doing several days of chemo every few weeks, but his last treatment was scheduled for July 16, 2012. Recent scans show no signs of cancer.
Now, he wants to return to school to pursue nursing. “If I could ever get into the oncology field and help kids with cancer, that would be awesome,” he said. “I never thought about getting cancer, nobody ever thinks it’s going to happen to them, but it happens.”