Boys soccer: Boulder’s Stewart-LaGrave back on soccer field after conquering cancer

The Panthers junior beat a rare type of sarcoma

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Boulder’s Joaquin Stewart-LaGrave poses for a photo at Recht Field on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019.
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Boulder junior Joaquin Stewart-LaGrave believes you can take about 15 seconds to celebrate a goal on the pitch before reining it in and focusing on the task ahead. Perhaps this way of thought came from his mother Valentina Iturbe-LaGrave, who gave herself just 48 hours to break down when Joaquin was diagnosed with cancer last year.

The 15-second rule went for Joaquin’s first-ever varsity goal last month — just a short, arduous, life-changing 13 months after being diagnosed with the life-threatening disease.

In celebration of his winner, the now cancer-free 16-year-old said he was reminded of the days undergoing aggressive treatment. While fighting the rare type of bone and soft tissue cancer that was ravaging his body as well as the close-knit family around him, he’d dream of the day he’d return to the sport he loved.

For the six months of treatment and the long period of physical therapy that followed, he thought almost every day about something as simple as a warmup jog around the field with his teammates or what the striking chance past a goalie would again feel like.

“It was pretty indescribable,” he said of his goal against 4A defending champ Air Academy on Aug. 31. “It was bliss for about what — 15 seconds until you got to make it back to (midfield) and keep playing.”

He chuckled, “it was a very long 15 seconds.”

In July of 2018, soon after Joaquin returned from a trip to Russia to see the FIFA World Cup with his stepfather and brother, he was diagnosed with a rare type of sarcoma.

His mother noticed he’d lost weight and was lethargic. And after about a week back, a stabbing pain in his abdomen emerged. What was initially believed to be appendicitis turned out to be a 14.1-centimeter malignant tumor in his pelvis.

“The boundaries of our world were redefined,” Valentina wrote on stewartlagrave.org, a site where she posted updates and personal journals about her son’s and family’s fight with the disease.

Her first post came a month after the initial blow. She titled it, “Diagnosis and Fear.”

“The world fell apart,” Valentina said. “I definitely fell apart. My dad, being a doctor, told me I only had 48 hours to fall apart. And after those 48 hours I had to get it together and we had to focus on giving Joaquin the very best medical treatment and saving his life. And that’s exactly what we did.”

To this day, she remembers how composed her then 15-year-old son handled the sinking news. Doctors asked Joaquin if he knew what cancer was, to which he replied in true academic form, “the abnormal reproduction of cells.”

Joaquin then asked the worst and best-case scenarios of treatment — a reply met with death and life. He also inquired how long he’d live if he didn’t pursue treatment, something doctors pegged around six months.

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Joaquin Stewart-LaGrave, a front line player for the Boulder soccer team, is back on the field for the Panthers after beating a rare form of sarcoma that required chemotherapy, radiation and a hefty amount of blood transfusions. (photo by Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

“Watching your 15-year-old son address these types questions at a young age with such composure was truly humbling,” Valentina said.

Her son still knew the journey ahead would be “scary as hell.”

“It’s a real eye-opener, a big reality check,” Joaquin said. “I was living the dream, just teenage bliss and with the diagnosis so hardcore … your life is flipped upside down.

“I’m pretty sure the words were, ‘yeah, you have cancer’. And when you hear those words and let it sink in you think of all the ads in your school saying donate to the leukemia and blood disorder foundations. It seems very distant — illness and cancer and disease and death — but it’s really close and we have to pay more attention to it and give it the respect it deserves.”

Joaquin beat the disease after an aggressive treatment that included 14 high-dose chemotherapy cycles, 31 rounds of radiation and 19 blood transfusions. He became a cancer survivor on Jan. 25, Valentina’s birthday.

A giant house party followed. And then another arduous journey.

“Nobody tells you what it’s like to climb out of that hole and back into the sunlight,” Joaquin said.

Physical therapy was needed for his weakened body. The junior said he had to rediscover his coordination, rebuild his stamina and redefine muscle movements. Some of the things he could do easily beforehand, he admitted, are harder these days.

“It’s really tough,” he said. But it hasn’t stopped him.

He rejoined his high school soccer team as a junior, where he’s become one of the critical members of the Panthers’ attack in 2019. He was tied for the team lead in points through five games with two goals and an assist.

“I can never even guess what’s going through his head,” marveled Boulder coach Hardy Kalisher, who embraced Joaquin following his first goal last month. “What a tremendous kid.”

In a scene come full-circle, Joaquin started in the team’s rivalry game against Fairview last week and Max Neumann scored both goals in the 2-1 double-overtime victory. The year before, Boulder and Fairview players wore yellow shoelaces and took a group photo in solidarity in support of his fight.

Neumann said he was getting goosebumps just thinking about all of it.

“We wore yellow laces to keep him in our thoughts and to actually be getting him back is just a miracle,” Neumann said. “He’s been the best player and just a great friend in general. Coming back from the situation he was in is just unreal to be honest.”

Still, there is plenty of work left for Joaquin.

A year ago, he continued his fight after losing all his hair from chemo treatment — including those in his nose, he said, making smells all the more magnified as he needed round-the-clock aromatherapy. And today, he said he’s still working to rediscover his identity.

Like time, he pushes forward.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Joaquin said for others fighting the disease. “You can look ahead and it seems so dark, it really does. It seems so dark. But there is a light at the end.”