Alex VanHolder’s battle with childhood brain cancer


Michael Pearce, Editor-In-Chief

At nine years old, Alex VanHolder began having difficulty seeing while playing his favorite sport, baseball. In May of 2016, doctors told him he had developed a Medulloblastoma tumor on his brain stem.

According to St. Jude’s Children Hospital, Medulloblastoma is a tumor that starts in the brain stem, and eventually can spread to the brain and spinal cord. If the tumor spreads, it can cause fluid buildup in the spine, which leads to difficulty moving.

On Oct. 31, 2017 VanHolder was drafted by the men’s soccer team through the Team IMPACT program. The program lasts for two years and makes the drafted child an honorary teammate.

When VanHolder was drafted, he was much more reserved and had never considered playing anything other than baseball. Now when he joins the team on the sideline, Director of Operations Tim Romanello said he acts like one of the guys and has taken a serious interest in soccer.

“When we first met Alex he was very shy,” Romanello said. “I think he was a little intimidated at first, but now after he met a lot of the team he walks around on the sideline trying to nutmeg [pass the ball between their legs] a lot of the guys. There is very rarely a game he misses, even on the road. He will come to Cleveland and Kentucky with the team.”

The team took quickly to VanHolder too. The entire team showed up to his 11th birthday party at Dave and Busters, which was in the midst of his chemotherapy.

“His birthday was really fun,” forward Travis Harrington said. “It was great to see him getting better and seeing a smile on his face despite his circumstances. It was a great thing to see a smile on his face.”

Not only did VanHolder benefit from the companionship, the players and coaching staff did as well.

“Having him as a part of the team has been a humbling experience,” Harrington said. “Things can happen in life that are out of your control, but to see his attitude in life was inspirational to me and my teammates as well. Every day is a blessing, looking at him gives all of us inspiration.”

Head coach Eric Pogue, who has no kids of his own, felt like VanHolder became part of his family after bonding with his players, whom he considers his children.

“It really puts things into perspective,” Pogue said. “I felt like he was one of my own. When he hurt, I hurt… If we could help in any way, we were going to be there for him. It has been an amazing experience.”

After a two year battle with cancer, the team learned he was cancer-free and had graduated from his program at Mott Children’s Hospital in April 2018. They were excited to see his progress through his treatment and his growth as a person.

“When we met him this time last year, we saw how frail he was and what he was going through,” Pogue said. ” We think we go through a lot, and we gained strength from him seeing what he has to go through. It puts things through perspective and makes us think about things bigger than ourselves.”

After he was announced cancer-free, the team won the “Community Service Award” at the annual Black and Gold Awards. VanHolder was in attendance, and received his own no. 25 Oakland jersey.

“To have him be announced cancer-free was an amazing experience,” Pogue said. “I think it was very helpful for him to be a part of our team to help him in that process. It gave him a support network and something to feel a part of. It was a really rewarding experience both ways. I get chills just thinking about it, and thinking about how he is right now.”