Jen Toland, Worcester Telegram & Gazette Staff
Worcester, Mass. — The Clark men's basketball team held its annual Coaches vs. Cancer game last Saturday when it faced NEWMAC foe MIT at Kneller Athletic Center. Cougars coach Paul Phillips and his staff wore sneakers with their jackets and ties to support the collaboration between the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Basketball Coaches while also helping to raise awareness in the fight against cancer.
This year, the game had extra special meaning for Clark assistant coach Pat Oroszko and all of the Clark community.
In November, the 34-year-old Oroszko, who was a member of some excellent Clark teams during his four-year playing career and is in his seventh season as an assistant at his alma mater, was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer. It spread to his lymph nodes and he has so far had six rounds of chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
Oroszko, who lives in Worcester with his wife, Courtney, and their children, 3-year-old Allison and 7-month-old Ryan, is confronting cancer with courage, pragmatism and positivity.
He has gained back about 15-20 of the 35 pounds he initially lost. He looks good and said he feels good. The side effects he experienced during the first couple rounds of chemo have subsided and he has missed minimal work time while undergoing treatment.
"It feels like the chemotherapy is really helping," said Oroszko, who is the director of student recruitment for Clark's graduate school. "My quality of life is excellent. Other than going to treatment, the rest of my life is the same as it was before the diagnosis, which is great. Hopefully we can keep it going in a positive direction."
For those who know Oroszko well, his optimism and bravery in the face of this horrid disease comes as no surprise.
"He's the regular Patrick," Phillips said. "I know he will fight this."
A CT scan Oroszko had last week showed that the chemotherapy has indeed helped and he said his doctor was pleased with the progress.
Last fall, Oroszko was having difficulty swallowing, which prompted his visit to the doctor. He underwent a swallow test, followed by an endoscopy, which revealed the diagnosis. A PET scan showed the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.
"I was shocked," Oroszko said. "I did not think it was going to be anything near that serious. When the endoscopy results came back, it was really shocking. Even then it was, 'Let's hope we caught it early. Let's hope it's isolated to a certain area and curable.' The scan said it spread and it was stage 4 and that was another shock. I didn't have symptoms for very long, which was another reason why this was so surprising."
Oroszko learned that esophageal cancer can be asymptomatic or very hard to detect, and it is also rare in someone his age. According to the National Cancer Institute, esophageal cancer is most frequently diagnosed among people aged 65-74.
Oroszko told Phillips his diagnosis right before the Cougars' early-season tournament at Wesleyan. Delivering the news to the team was difficult for Phillips, who has known Oroszko since he was a student at St. John's High.
"My first thoughts were, 'How can this happen to a young kid?'" Phillips said. "I had to fight back tears when I told the team. He's got a great attitude, he's feeling better and he looks better and we pray and I know he will fight this until the end."
After the game last Saturday, Oroszko's former teammates Bobby Corazzini, John Ginnity and Sean Fleming organized an intimate and fun-filled gathering in Oroszko's honor at the East Side Post on Plantation Street. His friends and coaches and their spouses, about 75 in total, were there to support Oroszko.
"It was really special," Corazzini said, "because everyone turned out for Pat. Pat has been involved in Clark basketball for a very long time and we've all held on to that Clark basketball connection. We'll never let it go."
Everyone in attendance enjoyed a meal, Ginnity ran the raffle, Oroszko spoke and by all accounts it was a great night and fundraiser.
"Coach Phillips always says Clark basketball is a family," Oroszko said, "and I never knew how true that was until I got this diagnosis. The rally and support that has come our way has been overwhelming. Clark is a big part of who I am and I feel lucky to work here while I'm going through this because I don't think other people are as lucky to have such a supportive employer.
It's floored us, the number of people who have reached out. I'm very grateful. It's easier to stay positive when you have so many people behind you."
Courtney, who is also a Clark graduate, is a rock.
"She is amazing," Oroszko said. "I feel like we're in it together; we're a team. Obviously it's a very difficult situation for her — two young kids, thinking about a future that is uncertain certainly is challenging for her, but she has been an unbelievable support system for me and I don't know where I'd be without her."
Being around the Cougars at practice and games has been an outlet for Oroszko, who played on two Clark teams that advanced to the Elite Eight.
Corazzini was a two-year teammate of Oroszko and also played with Oroszko's older brother, Chris, at Clark.
"I was lucky enough to play with both of them," Corazzini said. "The teams those guys were on were great teams and a big reason for that was their attitude and their work ethic and how they approached things. Pat has always had a great attitude."
At the end of Saturday night's gathering, Oroszko, Phillips said, told everyone, "I'll see you guys at the alumni game 20 years from now."
His prognosis is "one step at a time."
"They focus very much on the short term when someone has an advanced stage of cancer," Oroszko said. "For the long term, very few people have gone from where I was at in November to cancer-free. Most people don't get cured. It's been a very small number, but I'm, of course, aiming to be part of that small group. Being an atypical patient — most are 30 or 40 years older than me — I think maybe I can have atypical results. We're taking it one step at a time and I'm just trying to take it one day at a time.
"I love hearing stories of people who have made it through to the other side of this. Again, mine is pretty rare, so I haven't met anyone with exactly the same situation, but people going through cancer, making it through and going on to live healthy lives, I love hearing those stories."