Long-time coach, mother and daughter, celebrated at Pope John Paul II

ROYERSFORD — Over the last five years, Pope John Paul II has held an event that has become synonymous with community outreach and fundraising for cancer research. Dig Pink, while a nationally organized event for volleyball players to raise awareness of women dealing with cancer, has become an intimate evening for both the players and the community surrounding the Golden Panthers.

Thursday night, the Dig Pink event, which began back at St. Pius X, hosted its fifth annual game, this time between PAC-10 foes PJPII and Methacton. Family, friends, fellow athletes and the best student section in area sports filled the gymnasium dressed ad nauseam in pink with face paint, balloons and accessories to boot.

“The whole week we’re all really excited for it, the whole school is on board and it brings the whole community together,’ said four-year player and libero Alexa DiFillipo, whose mother, Sharon, has organized the event each year of her daughter’s high school career.

“We really support each other,’ she said.

This year, a mother and daughter cancer survivor team, Joanne and Casey Flanagan were honored, along with Sue McNulty, a long-time and beloved volleyball coach for many of the girls on the PJPII team. McNulty is coach Ryan Sell’s mother-in-law and grandmother to his first-born child, daughter Peyton.

McNulty, who proudly states she coached 75-to-80-percent of the girls on the varsity, and who will may even brag about it if they’re able to hoist the state championship trophy, has been incremental to the success that many players on the team now experience.

“Coaching isn’t just about the sport, we try to teach life lessons,’ McNulty said, who coaches both CYO and travel volleyball. “I coach because the people who coached me when I was younger make me feel like a better person. I want the same for them, I want them to be good people and want to give back.’

It was while coaching that McNulty began to feel not well.

“I could feel something wrong,’ McNulty said. “I didn’t know what, but I knew I didn’t feel right, I was struggling to stay on the court.’

Diagnosed with rectal cancer in May, McNulty became her treatments of radiation and chemotherapy almost immediately for seven weeks over the summer. Yet, two things remained constant, she was supported by friends and family every week and she never stopped coaching.

“Every one of those weeks people ordered me a meal train, I didn’t have to cook dinner,’ McNulty said.

On the court, she concedes that while it very physically draining, she takes such pride in her work that refuses to miss a beat. With the help of her assistant coach, McNulty has been able to stay involved in a high capacity with the sport.

“It takes all my energy to just get up and go,’ McNulty said. “It’s frustrating because I’m used to running drills and serving balls at them.’

The support she’s received from players, parents, friends, family and many others who have stepped forward has been a humbling experience. Not to mention the anonymous gifts of mums, a pumpkin, garden stuffs and a $50 gift card to Wegman’s, she’s been supported both face-to-face and by secret admirers (she says ‘ thank you’, stranger).

“It’s overwhelming, heart-warming and incredibly touching to know how many people are here to support or do what I need me to do,’ she said.

Be it offers to take her to appointments, to sit with her, or to just talk, have been “hard to believe that you know that many people who care about you.’

In little less than a month, McNulty will go in for surgery to be followed by more rounds of radiation and chemo, but she is hopeful and she is ready for the journey ahead.

On Thursday, just prior to the night’s festivities, she learned at a doctor’s appointment that her tumors had decreased by 50-percent, certainly some good news before a humbling experience in front of a cheering crowd.

“It’s very touching that these kids and these people care about me,’ McNulty said. “It gives me the strength to keep fighting.’

Of players on the court, Casey Flanagan, a freshman on the PJPII team, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma when she was just eight years old. Her mother, Joanne, had lived through breast cancer long before her daughter was born, but on Thursday they were both honored together for the first time.

“You really don’t realized how many people are touched with the disease, it’s nice that Pope John Paul recognizes other cancer survivors and brings the community together,’ Joanne Flanagan said, whose husband, Richard, is the brother of PJPII athletic director, Jack Flanagan.

“It touches me to see people recognize, show support, with all the kids who wear pink … it’s nice to see that they have always been there to support us and offer friendship,’ she said.

Joanne, a 20-year survivor of breast cancer, was shocked to learn that her daughter, Casey, had been diagnosed with RMS, a type of cancer that specially attaches itself to muscle tissue, wraps around intestines or anatomic location. It’s a relatively rare form of cancer that is most commonly seen in children.

“When she was diagnosed, part of me felt guilt, I felt like it was me coming through in her,’ Flanagan said. “We found out later that it wasn’t a genetic link, but for two people in the same family to be diagnosed, you just don’t expect to see your child come through with that.’

“They’re young and full of life, you don’t expect that to touch them.’

Just an elementary school student at Sacred Heart, Casey started radiation therapy and then chemotherapy at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia just two weeks after her diagnosis. She did six months of treatments before heading up to Boston where she went through more rigorous proton therapy.

“The school set up a webcam, we never missed a beat with anything, and the school had less than two weeks to put it all together,’ Flanagan said. “If we didn’t have that, we would have felt very alone.’

Casey was both able to keep up with her studies from afar, but also keep in contact with her close friends, which proved to be the ultimate benefit to a young person going through a potentially catastrophic illness.

“It was almost like she hadn’t been away, we were seeing them on the webcam each day, and when she came back to school her hair was gone, her eyes were red from the treatment, but it didn’t phase her at all,’ Flanagan said.

Now 14-years-old and a productive member of the junior varsity team of the Golden Panthers’ squad, both mother and daughter were honored under unique circumstances.

“It’s neat for me and Casey to go through types of events like that together,’ Flanagan said. “It’s not the thing you want to have in common with you daughter, but we admire each other.’

With an easy victory against Methacton Thursday, those in attendance certainly had much to cheer for as the Golden Panthers continued their march toward an undefeated season. The school raised over $3,000, their most successful event yet, which will donated in full to the Mercy Cancer Center. but the true winners were those in attendance who transcended the sport and celebrated something much greater, for some, ideals taught to them as younger players.

“Playing sports shows you have to get along with people, you have to respect each other, you learn how to win and lose with dignity, honor and grace … We try to teach them how to be better people and how to take lessons away from a hard loss, because they get better and it’s part of life,’ McNulty said. “You may hurt badly, but you’re going to survive, you just have to be gracious and humble.’

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