MARSHALL — Andrew Shippell has provided leadership and inspiration to the Marshall boys’ soccer team — and it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s the Redhawks’ leading scorer.
Shippell, 17, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, during his freshman soccer season in 2012. Now a senior, he’s in the maintenance phase of his chemotherapy and is set to be chemo-free on Feb. 1.
“It’s so exciting after almost three years of a daily routine of pills every day and chemo once a month,” Shippell said. “It will be amazing and exciting and awkward at the same time (when it’s over) because it’s all I’ve known for the past three years.”
September is childhood cancer awareness month. According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, 15,780 children in the U.S. under the age of 21 are diagnosed with cancer every year; approximately a quarter of them will not survive the disease.
Like so many, Shippell, his family and friends were all shocked by his cancer diagnosis in October of 2012. His mother, Theresa Shippell, said her son has never felt sorry for himself and has approached his fight against leukemia with a winner’s attitude.
“Andrew’s whole mindset from the whole beginning was, ‘I’m going to beat this, this is a game and I play to win,'” Theresa said. “That’s what it’s been for our whole family — this is not a game we’re going to lose. If you don’t play to win, you don’t play at all.”
FRESHMAN PHENOM TO CANCER PATIENT
Andrew Shippell had always been one of the more athletic kids in his class. He left middle school with the school record in the 100-yard dash and was also active in soccer, basketball and baseball.
Andrew made the varsity soccer team as a freshman and would lead the team in scoring. He was all set to help the Redhawks win a district title when shoulder pain was followed by a prolonged fever. His mother insisted on some blood work, which showed he had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
“First they didn’t say cancer, they said leukemia. Then I had to ask if it was cancer,” Andrew said. “Once they told me it was cancer — you hear that word and you hear about all the awful stories of people passing away and becoming extremely ill. So I asked my mom and my doctor if I was going to pass away. They told me no and that they had caught it early enough and it was good. I got a little bit teary, it was pretty rough.”
Alec Kraushaar was also a freshman on the Marshall varsity soccer team that season and is a close friend to Andrew. The entire team made a visit to the hospital to help lift his spirits after their district championship.
“My first thought was, what if he was to die or something that dramatic and how life-threatening it was,” Kraushaar said. “Just astonishment. You couldn’t believe it because he was our leading goal scorer, one of the fittest on the team and the fastest sprinter. For him to have cancer out of nowhere like that was pretty unbelievable.”
KEEPING LIFE NORMAL
The first year of Andrew’s chemotherapy was rough. He had a port implanted into his chest for the chemo to reach his blood. He missed the remainder of his freshman year and was home-schooled because his immune system had weakened.
When he returned to Marshall for his sophomore year, he just tried to keep things as normal as possible.
“Just trying to keep a positive attitude throughout the whole scheme of things,” Andrew said. “Staying strong, knowing that I can beat it and will beat it. Trying to go about my daily life and let it have no affect on me.”
Despite having chemo treatments three times a week and losing much of his endurance, Andrew returned to the soccer field and also came out for baseball as a sophomore.
Theresa Shippell believes Andrew has been helped both physically and mentally by staying active during his recovery.
“We’ve been doing this since 2012 and he has never complained about being sick,” she said. “Andrew was pretty fit, he never lost a lot of muscle tone. I think that his physical condition has helped make his journey a little easier. Why didn’t he lose his hair? Why does he have his reflexes? We think it’s because he was in such good physical condition, his body better dealt with it.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
It didn’t take long for Shippell’s story to spread throughout the tight-knit Marshall community. Soon after his diagnosis there were blood drives and fundraising rallies at the high school.
None of it surprised Andrew.
“Marshall is a great small community. Most people know almost everybody,” Andrew said. “When big events happen in town, people get behind it. … Some of my teammates’ parents would cook food and bring it by the hospital.”
The support and sympathy certainly means a lot to Andrew in his recovery. But to find others who truly understand what he is going through, he traveled to Montana for a stay at Camp-Mak-A-Dream — a medically supervised experience for children, teens, young adults, women and families affected by cancer.
“That was life-changing. They fly you out and you spend a week with kids with all different types of cancers around your same age,” Andrew said. “You can just sit in your cabin and talk about experiences and what it’s been like going through the whole situation. You find that other kids have similar events happen.”
LEADING THE REDHAWKS
Shippell still doesn’t have the endurance to make it through an entire 90-minute soccer game. Still, through 11 games and nine starts he’s leading the team in goals (5) and is second in assists (7).
“You can tell from each year since it’s been a fight for him,” Kraushaar said. “Physically, fitness-wise, I don’t think it’s there yet. But each year he’s been more faster and has more stamina. Each year he’s getting back to where he was and he’s improving all the time, too. He’s such a good player that he doesn’t let it just stop him. He doesn’t use it as an excuse. He’s always improving, no matter that he has cancer.”
Marshall first-year soccer coach Hans Morgan didn’t realize Shippell was going through chemotherapy until another player notified him after he saw the port during conditioning.
“He certainly doesn’t make it an excuse or focal point by any stretch,” Morgan said. “You really wouldn’t know. What we’ve settled into is we play him in shorter shifts and get him plenty of rest.”
Morgan added that Shippell is a “lead by example” type and the courage he has exemplified will serve his teammates well beyond this season.
“His life experience and leadership are huge for us. The way he handles it is unbelievable,” Morgan said. “I mean, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but I don’t think I could handle it as well as he does if I had to go through it. I’m amazed by what he does.”
Andrew said he would like to attend Kellogg Community College next year and get his general classes out of the way, while also staying close enough to home that his doctors can keep an eye on him. Then he wants to study to become an oncologist to help others like himself.
As someone who was forced to grow up quickly, Andrew offers sage advice for anyone who is impacted by cancer.
“Just keep a strong mind frame and accept all the support that tries to come your way. Don’t block anybody out of your life that would normally be in it or that isn’t in it and tries to join. Keep your mind off of it and know that you will beat it.”
Nick Buckley can be reached at email@example.com or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley