by Kyle Neirman M’15
Making the leap from high school to college athletics often proves to be a difficult task and requires toughness and determination. For University of Findlay freshman soccer player Addison Graham, those qualities were instilled at a young age, and with much more on the line than playing time.
At the age of nine, Addison “Addie,” a Perrysburg, Ohio native, visited the dermatologist to have a spot on her upper arm examined. After a painful biopsy, during which Addie says, “I was tough and did not cry at all,” doctors called the Grahams and asked them to return to the office to share the results.
“I knew as soon as the doctor’s office called and asked us to come in that it was serious,” said Addie’s mother, Beth. “It was one of the scariest moments of our lives. I begged the nurse to let me know what the diagnosis was because I wanted to be able to be calm for Addie and (father) Ian.”
What the doctor shared was that the spot was malignant fibrous histiosarcoma of the upper arm. According to the National Cancer Institute, the disease is a type of cancer that forms in soft tissue and can occur anywhere in the body, but is commonly found in arms and legs. It is much more common in adults than in children.
“My parents explained the diagnosis to me and my brothers and I seemed to really understand,” Addie said. “I went to my classroom with my mom and she was going to try to explain my cancer to them. I held her hand and said, ‘Mom, I will tell them,’ and explained it perfectly.”
“She handled it extremely well,” said Beth. “She was never scared or down.”
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Now that the Grahams had a diagnosis, it was time for treatment to begin. After appointments at Toledo Children’s Hospital and at the University of Michigan Mott’s Children’s Hospital, it was determined that surgery would be needed.
Addie went under the knife to have the sarcoma removed but, since malignant fibrous histiosarcoma is so rare in children, it has not been widely researched, and it was determined that she would need another surgery to remove even more of the surrounding tissue.
This string of events seems anything but easy, especially at the age of nine, but that’s exactly the verbiage Addie used to describe her ordeal.
“Luckily for me, the type of cancer I had was easily treated,” Addie remarked. “My attitude was always very positive, just worrying about getting treated.”
Naturally, after a mass of tissue is removed from an arm, the spot needs to be stitched so that it can heal properly. However, these stitches meant time on the sideline for Addie, who was learning to love the game of soccer. But, as Addie recalls, even those stitches couldn’t stop her.
“I had a big soccer game just a few days after my surgery. I played in the game because it meant so much to me. Soccer was my outlet and a good distraction from what was going on,” she said.
Addie’s mom, Beth, commented, “Our family and the soccer community became our support system and a distraction for Addie. She was determined to get back to soccer as soon as possible and her philosophy was she didn’t need her arm for soccer, just her feet.”
Enter the University of Findlay and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
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Make-A-Wish, a foundation that grants wishes to children battling serious illness, reached out to the Grahams after hearing about Addie. The family was reluctant at first, but accepted the offer when they realized how much fun it could be for their daughter.
In their first year of partnering with Make-A-Wish, the University of Findlay Athletic Department, led by the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), was paired with the Grahams to help raise money for Addie’s wish, which was to go to Disney World and Universal Studios.
On Jan. 12, 2013, Addie was on campus at Findlay in Croy Gymnasium where a packed house helped raise a portion of the money that would make her wish come true. Addie remembers that day very clearly.
“I came with some of my closest friends. They (the student-athletes) made me feel very special,” she said.
Her mother added, “The student-athletes were nothing short of amazing.”
After returning to have X-rays taken every six months for the next five years, and just once a year since then, Addie is cancer free and has been excelling at the game of soccer.
When it came time to be recruited, Addie, who led Perrysburg to a state runner-up finish in 2017 and scored more than 70 goals in her career, had many schools knocking on her door. But one school stood alone.
“Findlay has always been close to my heart because of me coming when I was a Make-A-Wish child,” Addie said. But it was her relationship with women’s soccer coach Jimmy Walker that may have tipped the scale even further.
“I have always loved Coach Jimmy (who previously coached club soccer in the Perrysburg area) growing up and I knew he would make me a better player and help me grow as a person,” she said.
Addie’s father Ian, a goalkeeper coach at Findlay, says there was no pressure put on his daughter.
“Addie fell in love with Findlay and made the choice on her own. Make-A-Wish made her really want to come, but Jimmy’s coaching style was also a big part of her decision.”
On the subject of coaching his daughter, Ian said, “I have the best seat in the house as a dad to watch her play for the next four years. The battles she has had at a young age helped mold her into who she is today. Adds has a spark inside her, a strong drive and work ethic that will make her successful in anything she does on the field, classroom, and life.”
“As a parent, a diagnosis of cancer for one of your children is heartbreaking. We are extremely lucky that Addie had two surgeries and is now clear,” Beth said. “No one is promised tomorrow.”
While she is now cancer free, Addie does not forget or take lightly everything she endured as a child.
“Hearing the word ‘cancer’ makes my stomach drop every time. Beating cancer has taught me never to take life for granted and has taught me to be so mentally and physically tough. Going through that at such a young age made me grow up fast,” she said
That growth has been visible, especially on the field. Now a regular in the lineup for the very school she visited as a young child, Addie helped Findlay to an undefeated start to the season. “The news gets even better: in November, the women’s soccer team had won the Great Midwest Athletic Conference regular season championship, which represented their first conference title since joining the NCAA, and earned its first NCAA Division II playoff berth in school history.”
“Addie has always had to be tough and aggressive as a player as she does not possess huge size,” said Findlay head coach Jimmy Walker. “But what she lacks in height she more than makes up for in desire.”