By Emily Machado & Joshua Kummins
Sarah LaClair (Belchertown, Mass.) has lived and breathed soccer for as long as she can remember. Getting ready to attend Star Goalkeeper Academy in Connecticut, she was expecting an average check-up at the doctor's office.
As it turned out, this visit and this day would change her life.
She remembers it like yesterday.
"It was July 13, 2011," said LaClair, the Lasell College women's soccer team's starting goalkeeper. "My pediatrician came in and did all the normal stuff. When she felt my neck, she felt something weird. She called in the head doctor, he looked at it and I went and got a test that day for it."
The tests followed, as did her commitment to Star Goalkeeper Academy. She took part in the Connecticut-based camp all throughout high school. This time though, it was an escape, a distraction from all that had gone on.
When she returned to the doctor's office, her life changed in three words.
"You never want to hear those words, 'You have cancer,'" LaClair said. "My parents were very good about explaining to me what it was and that it was very treatable."
LaClair was diagnosed with Stage 4 thyroid cancer at 14 years old, as a sophomore at Belchertown High School. She missed part of her sophomore soccer season after having surgery on August 9. It was a time she calls one of the most difficult in her life as an athlete, as she was expected to assume the starting role.
Driven to play, LaClair would not let her diagnosis take the season away.
"My doctors actually said they were surprised about how fast I was recovering because of how fast I wanted to get back and start playing again," LaClair said. "It sucked (not playing), but my team was great."
"The night before my surgery, my whole soccer team came over. They made a little soccer Build-A-Bear which was really nice, and they made bands with my initials on it."
Those who know LaClair best see all she has gone through as a positive journey, and overcoming cancer has given her some perspective in life, and soccer.
"Her desire to compete and the hard work she puts into making herself the best she can be, I think, reflects back to those days when she first learned about her condition," said Jim Swift, Lasell's goalkeeping coach. "She now looks at every day with much more clarity than I think the rest of us who haven't gone through that struggle."
It is that support that helped LaClair overcome cancer and return to the game she loves.
"It's a funny contrast how nothing is guaranteed in life. I know that because of how unexpected me getting cancer was. It showed me that my health isn't guaranteed, and that made me appreciate every day. I carry that over into soccer because although we have a very strong program, nothing is guaranteed for us and we have to work harder than everyone else, every day, to reach our goals."
Now a junior at Lasell, cancer is a part of her life that many on campus still don't know about.
Swift and head coach Vito LaFrancesca learned of her condition earlier than most, but finding out the news during the recruiting process was still a shocking surprise.
"I first learned about her condition after she had committed to Lasell," said Swift, who helped recruit LaClair to Lasell for two years. "When she and her family shared that with me, it was quite a shock, but after talking with them about it and how she responded from it was quite amazing."
LaClair had all of her treatment done back home at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Mass., and Bay State Hospital in Springfield, but LaFrancesca ― who also works at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston ― made sure LaClair knew the Lasers were there for her, if she ever needed help.
When LaClair had a minor scare as a result of a cold during her freshman year at Lasell, the team was there for her.
"Vito works at Dana-Farber, so he said, 'If you need anything, come in and I can get you in with someone,'" LaClair said. "The whole team knew a little bit about (my condition) and they were all very supportive. It was just nice to see I still had that kind of support from my team here."
Cancer is near and dear to LaFrancesca's heart not only because of his work at Dana-Farber, but because he lost his mother to cancer eight years ago.
Hearing LaClair's story of triumph made LaFrancesca want her to be a part of his program that much more. She continues to inspire her teammates, and her coach.
"I didn't find out until a few weeks before she committed to us. Once I did, I wanted her to be part of our family even more," said LaFrancesca, who is in his tenth season as head coach at Lasell. "Sarah is a very special young lady. Not only is she an amazing goalkeeper, but she has a great attitude. Her determination inspires the entire team, including me."
LaClair has backstopped the Lasers to two of six total Great Northeast Athletic Conference (GNAC) Championships. In her past two seasons, LaClair has ranked number one in goals against average. LaClair has never lost a single conference game, and plans to continue her dominance tenfold.
"Winning the GNAC to me is the ultimate goal because it just goes to show how far I've come since my surgery," said LaClair. "It proves that after everything I went through that I'm able to play the sport I love and to be on a very successful team."
While cancer will always be part of LaClair's life, it is no longer one at the forefront.
That's exactly what she wants.
"I don't want people to ever think of me differently because I had cancer," LaClair said. "I'm not the girl who had cancer. I'm Sarah LaClair, the goalie; I had cancer and it made me a better person."