CADILLAC, Mich. (AP) — The high school choir room buzzed with spontaneous song and silliness before the show. Their recent rendition of Disney’s “High School Musical” was the students’ first chance to perform live since the pandemic shut down the world two years ago.
Everyone was thrilled to be together again, but nervous, too.
At this point, someone usually shouts, “Break a leg!” MacKale McGuire, one of the show’s stars, responds with a cheeky grin: “I beat you to it.”
It is dark humor from a young man whose left leg was amputated above the knee four years ago after a battle with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. “I’ve said it too many times, and now people just roll their eyes whenever they hear it,” he said, chuckling. “But I love doing it. It’s funny.”
MacKale learned to walk again with a prosthetic leg. He returned to golfing almost immediately and eventually played soccer. Inspired by athletes in the winter Paralympics, which were on right about the time of his amputation, he learned to ski on one leg.
Now, on this snowy night in his northern Michigan hometown, he was about to dance across the stage, playing the lead role of Troy Bolton, a jock (like him) who likes to sing. A show that’s heavy on dancing was a particular challenge.
“I like to surprise people,” said the curly-headed 18-year-old, whose story has long inspired his small community. Shortly after his diagnosis in 2015, the Cadillac High School boys’ basketball team donned “Team MacKale” shirts in his favorite colors – fluorescent orange and black. Soon, people all over town were wearing them.
MacKale, also called “Mac,” has been cancer-free for more than five years. He credits the support, especially from his family, with helping him get through challenging times.
But his parents say MacKale has always been pretty resilient, perhaps because he’s dealt with hard things his entire life. He was born with hemophilia, a blood-clotting disorder. So when the cancer diagnosis came, he was accustomed to visiting doctors and hospitals.
His mom, Marsha McGuire, says he also seems to have forgotten or compartmentalized the worst moments in his cancer journey – the nausea from chemotherapy that made it hard to eat or the pain from the unsuccessful attempt to use a cadaver bone to save his leg.
After a surgeon in Florida presented amputation as an option in 2018, MacKale quickly agreed.
“When he had his full leg, he was more handicapped than he is now without his leg. It was like a dead weight,” his mom recalls. “When he had his amputation, it’s like the whole world opened up to him and he seemed more confident to all of us.”
MacKale started out as a manager for his school soccer team. His coach eventually encouraged him to play.
“I just remember that first time and feeling the wind blow through my hair again,” he said. “… I was hooked from then on.”
As a sophomore, MacKale scored a winning goal in a shootout during a tournament game. With the help of a “blade” prosthetic that gave him more speed and agility, he played varsity this season, his last at Cadillac High.
“I try to like look for things that I can do, rather than things that I can’t do,” he said.
Even when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of life, MacKale said he felt more prepared for the isolation than most.
“While I was in treatment, I was basically in a similar situation — like people rarely came to see me because I was sick quite often,” he said. “So it just it seemed kind of familiar in a weird way.”
In the fall, MacKale plans to go to college. He’s thinking about becoming a pediatric oncologist to help kids in the same predicament he was – though sports management and theater also are appealing.
For now, he’s just happy to enjoy the end of his senior year and to savor those moments back on stage.
“This could be the start of something new. It feels so right to be here with you,” MacKale sang in one song, as Troy Bolton.
Wearing a basketball uniform for most of the show, his prosthetic leg was there for all to see. But he hoped most people eventually forgot about it and just enjoyed the show.
Martha Irvine, an AP national writer and visual journalist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at http://twitter.com/irvineap