Josh Dickerson, a 17-year-old at O'Dea, was told in April he had months to live, but continued to play baseball.
Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true. — A saying O’Dea baseball player Josh Dickerson had tattooed onto his left arm during a spring-break trip to Hawaii.
As Josh Dickerson walked across the O’Dea gym, a baseball sailed past his head and landed in a teammate’s glove.
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The shortstop settled onto a seat in the bleachers, while another teammate took swings in the batting cage.
The sounds of baseball surrounded the 17-year-old, who was wearing a flat-brimmed Florida Marlins hat, a black T-shirt, black shorts and batting gloves — the unfastened wrist straps flapping each time he moved his hands.
In this gym, surrounded by his teammates, Dickerson immerses himself in baseball. He ignores the constant pain in his jaw caused by a cancerous tumor. He dismisses the dire diagnosis.
“I’m just glad I’m still playing ball, still dreaming the dream, being the best person I can be,” Dickerson said last week. “That’s all I can do.”
Dickerson was first diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma — a cancerous soft-tissue tumor — after an abscess was discovered while getting his wisdom teeth removed in 2009. He lost his sophomore season while undergoing chemotherapy. The cancer went into remission for the better part of a year before coming back aggressively.
Doctors told him in April he has months to live.
“I think I’m going to live longer than that,” he said.
Despite the diagnosis, he played most of the season.
“I just can’t worry about that a lot,” said Dickerson, who turns 18 in July and played his final game last week. “I’ve just got to go out there and be me and not try and change anything.”
Courage + Believe = Life — Another new tattoo on Dickerson’s left arm.
Dickerson knew something was wrong.
When he probed the right side of his mouth with his tongue, he could feel a lump. He didn’t want to tell his parents.
“I didn’t want them to freak out,” he said.
He had been going to the hospital every three months to make sure the cancer remained in remission. When he went in September, he felt great. His tests were clear. Months later, though, Dickerson felt that bump building.
In December, tests revealed the cancer had returned. The family set up a meeting to talk about treatment options and the future. After the discussion with doctors, Dickerson’s parents, Kiyo and Diana, let their son decide the next step.
“What do you want to do?” they asked.
Dickerson didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t want to miss baseball season,” he said, postponing treatments as long as he could.
Kiyo and Diana knew their son was taking a risk. They stood by his decision.
“At that point, it became very clear to us it was about the quality of life versus the quantity of life,” Kiyo said. “It’s one thing he didn’t want to give up. He’s just another kid who wants to play ball.
“Ugly days are coming. We know that. But we’re not going to waste time now worrying about it. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to that.”
Since the diagnosis, Dickerson tried to stay on the baseball field, while managing the pain. Sitting in the O’Dea gym at practice last week, he pointed to the lump in his jaw. The tumor is visible just above a long, pink surgical scar — a visual reminder of everything he has endured.
The tumor makes it difficult for him to open his mouth. He takes OxyContin and oxycodone. The drugs help numb the pain when he eats, but he doesn’t have much of an appetite.
“It’s the worst pain I’ve ever had and it’s never going to go away,” said Dickerson, who uses the left side of his mouth to talk.
The tumors spread into his lungs. He felt them with each swing. But he kept playing.
“He is doing the best possible,” O’Dea coach Mike Doyle said. “He’s making the most of the limited time he has. I just feel a responsibility to try to help him get that.”
Like Kiyo and Diana, Doyle let Dickerson decide when he played. He started at shortstop for the Irish and, on the days when he couldn’t play in the field, he remained in the lineup as the team’s designated hitter.
“So many things are out of his control right now, I want to try to give him some control over something,” Doyle said. “He’s a teenage boy. He wants to be in control. He wants to get a grasp of his own life and there’s really no grasp on life that he can have right now.”
Dickerson played his final high-school game Wednesday, going 3 for 5 against Eastside Catholic. After making it through most of the season, he has decided it’s time to undergo radiation treatments.
Dickerson had his first treatment Monday, then traveled to Hiawatha Park to watch his teammates beat West Seattle.
Stand Up 2 Cancer — Dickerson has a third tattoo running down his triceps on his left arm, Major League Baseball’s Stand Up 2 Cancer logo.
There is a photo from Dickerson’s freshman year. He is sliding headfirst into home plate at Safeco Field during the Class 3A state semifinals. Dirt is flying into his face. He has thick streaks of eye black high on each cheek.
What Doyle remembers about that moment is Dickerson ignoring the stop sign he put up at third base. When Doyle thinks about that photo — Dickerson was safe — and everything that has happened since, “it hurts.”
“It really hurts to see what he’s had to go through,” Doyle said. “It’s a challenge you don’t wish even on your biggest enemy.”
When asked about the wave of emotion Dickerson has experienced since doctors told him in April he has months to live, he admitted he is often sad. Being around teammates, and baseball, though, “takes it off my mind.”
“I just stay upbeat with him, because I know that’s kind of what he needs the most,” junior Dylan Wade said. “He wants life to be as normal as it possibly can. That’s what I try to bring to it, a positive, upbeat friend to help him out.”
At a recent practice, Dickerson stepped into the batting cage. He settled into his stance. He prepared for the pitch.
It would be thrown by his father.
Since Dickerson has been old enough to pick up a bat, father and son bonded through baseball. This season, more than ever, those practices were precious.
“Baseball is our family thing,” Kiyo said. “Until the very last day when his body won’t allow him to do it anymore, we’ll be right there with him — all the way through.”
Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org