Striking Out Cancer
Junior pitcher Kevin Galasso’s perfect inning of relief for the Tufts baseball team on March 18 in Newport News, Virginia, appeared in the box score as a small part of the Jumbos’ 22-0 win over St. Vincent College. It was much bigger than that.
Making his collegiate debut for head coach John Casey’s team, Galasso’s outing was a triumph in his fight against cancer. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Nov. 7, 2014, during his sophomore year at Tufts, Galasso had spent seven months in treatment and more than a year working diligently to return to his life as a student-athlete. He struck out the first two batters looking and then the third popped out to center field.
“A short five minutes that I will remember for the rest of my life,” Galasso said.
A quantitative economics major, Galasso has become an important part of the Jumbo bullpen. He struck out 17 batters and compiled an impressive 1.77 ERA, working 20 1/3 innings in 12 appearances so far this spring. Not bad for a kid who had been given 60-40 odds of surviving.
“Getting back to playing baseball and back to school motivated me throughout the entire process,” Galasso said. “I wanted to get back as quickly as possible, because you don’t want to have your life on hold. You want to just keep going.”
His freshman year had been a difficult transition, but as a sophomore he was relishing the academic and athletic challenges. He went to Tufts Health Service on Nov. 4 because of a cough that wouldn’t go away. He told the doctors that he had to leave soon for an exam, but they told him that he wouldn’t be taking it.
After X-rays and blood tests both in Massachusetts and at home in New Jersey, Galasso was diagnosed with stage 4B Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A cancer of the lymphatic system, Hodgkin’s is regarded as generally treatable. However, stage 4B is the most serious. He had it from his groin all the way up to his neck.
“They showed me the CAT scan and I was like a Christmas tree,” Galasso said.
At 20 years old, he was closely familiar with cancer. His older sister, Katie Galasso, A13, had been diagnosed with leukemia in high school. Kevin never imagined that it would happen to him. Once it did, he wanted to move on with the treatment as quickly as possible.
He and his family decided on an aggressive approach, including six cycles of chemotherapy for three weeks each, followed by eight weeks of radiation. The third week of each cycle would be the worst. His blood counts dropped, and the medication needed to get them back up caused his joints to swell. Twice he had to be hospitalized due to the unbearable pain this caused.
“It felt like someone was sticking knives in my joints,” he said. “Those times were the lowest of the low, when I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this anymore.’”
The support from his parents, Lisa and R.J., as well as from his sister, Katie, helped him through it. His family at Tufts, made up of members of the baseball team and his brothers at Delta Upsilon fraternity (DU), checked in on him regularly. His teammates made day trips to New Jersey to visit him. DU sponsored a basketball tournament, which raised $5,000 in his name for a charity at his hospital.
“I think the biggest thing about Kev and his fight was his consistent positive attitude,” said Speros Varinos, A17, a senior tri-captain for the Jumbos. “Despite his tough circumstances, he never showed any negative attitude.”
Back to the Mound
By the end of March 2015, there were indications that the treatment was working even better than hoped. Doctors told him they hadn’t seen someone react to the chemo as quickly as he did. Though this was the period when he was physically at his worst, he was energized when told that he did not need radiation. He was declared cancer-free and the treatment ended on May 1.
A long road lay ahead, particularly for someone who wanted to pitch again. Some of his doctors didn’t think that was a good idea—the chemotherapy had weakened his joints and bones.
“It’s not what you want to hear after making it through seven months of chemo,” Galasso said. “I made the decision that doctors were telling me no, but I have to at least try. I had been working so long for this. I wanted to be able to do it.”
He returned to Tufts in September 2015 and was involved with the team, doing light workouts as well as social media and video work. It wasn’t until June 2016 that he felt strong enough to begin his comeback attempt.
“Even the year he came back, but still couldn’t play, he did everything possible to help the team,” Varinos said. “As a player, it was tough for me to look at him giving us everything he had and ever feel sorry for myself. He never used his sickness as an excuse, and refused to let it hold him back.”
Now, approaching two years cancer-free, a critical landmark in the recovery from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Galasso is getting stronger every day. He’s a key contributor to a team that is ranked No. 10 in the nation with a 25-5-1 record. He has an internship lined up for the summer doing financial analysis for the biotechnology firm Becton Dickinson, and is on track to graduate in 2018.
Galasso wanted to make sure that his doctors at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, along with Margaret Higham and the staff at Tufts Health Services, received recognition for his recovery as well. But it is his determination to get back to doing what he loved that stands out.
“When this happened, we all just wanted him be OK,” his coach, John Casey, said. “The baseball stuff is gravy. I’m pumped because he’s feeling good about himself. He’s feeling like all this hard work paid off. Two years ago, this is what we thought he could do. So he just got right back on track.”
Sports Information Director Paul Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com.