Favorite athlete: Corinne, from the Eagles Cheerleaders. She stood out to me because she was very nice and made feel me so comfortable the night the Eagles Cheerleaders came to honor me and my team on Senior Night. It was an overwhelming night, and I was super nervous about it but Corinne was very chill and made me feel so comfortable. Not to mention she is a great cheerleader and super pretty.
Favorite team: The Eagles! I have been a fan my whole life and when they won the last Super Bowl my parents, brother and I went to the parade. It was amazing and I am counting on them to win again in two weeks.
Favorite sports memory: Senior Night. Getting to see the Eagles cheerleaders and cheer alongside of them was the best night of my life.
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that happened to me in sports: It was when my scooter died at the top of the hill at school and my friends had to push me all the way down to the stadium so I could cheer. The scooter by itself is 80 pounds so that plus me did not make it easy for them but it was really funny.
Favorite music: Country pop and pop music. I mostly listen to Luke Combs and Calum Scott. I am dying to go to the Country Music Fest.
Future plans: I want to study social media marketing at Montco and then transfer to Penn State Abington. I have always wanted to go to Penn State but their Abington campus is close by. I want to stay close to home, so I can commute and be near my family and CHOP and continue to do physical therapy. My goal is to work for a successful business doing social medial marketing. One thing I never want to do when I get older is to be a nurse. I hate needles and have to get them all the time and so I don't want to step foot in a hospital any more than I do now.
Words to live by: "When life changes to be harder, change yourself to be stronger."
One thing people don't know about me: I was born on Friday the 13th!
By GORDON GLANTZ
In many ways, Abigail Massari is no different than any other high school senior.
She draws strength from her friends, listens to Luke Combs and Calum Scott, and is eyeing a career in social media.
But there is nothing regular about Massari and her ongoing journey.
At the tender age of 13, just two weeks after running in a track meet and showing no ill effects, she began experiencing some nausea and her mother, Kerri, took her to the pediatrician.
While stress was suspected as a root cause, an MRI was suggested just to “rule out worst-case scenarios.”
Recalled her mother: “I was, like, ‘What is a worst-case scenario?’ I had no idea. We had never set foot in CHOP before May of 2018. We got the MRI two days later, and we never left CHOP for 55 long days.”
That’s when Abigail was diagnosed with one of those worst-case scenarios, a slow growing brain tumor in her brain stem.
In the intervening four-and-a-half years, Abigail has undergone four brain surgeries and a year of traditional chemotherapy and is now in a second year of oral chemotherapy.
The first brain surgery left Abigail in a wheelchair.
Nonetheless, the goal – short- and long-term – was to keep working toward getting better and staying positive.
“We did not view this as a death sentence in any way,” said Kerri. “That’s not how our family operates. It was a diagnosis that we can work with. People hear the term ‘brain tumor’ and think it means you are going to be dead in a year. That’s not at all what her doctors expect for her, and certainly not what I expect for her.
“The hope and the plan is that these types of tumors tend to control themselves once kids get into their mid-twenties. It is not always the case, but it is certainly what we are aiming for – to keep her alive and well and happy.”
Kerri went on to explain that the diagnosis of a Grade 1 tumor, which she calls the “best-case scenario of a horrible diagnosis,” means that her daughter can not only survive the present but thrive in the future.
“They feel very strongly that there are options for her controlling it, exactly like we are doing now,” she explained. “We have been doing oral chemotherapy for a year and a half, and it has been doing its job, thank God. There have been many who have lived many years with a brain tumor, especially the kind that she has. It’s just tough getting there. I’m realistic, but I’m also very positive about what we hope is her outcome.”
Meeting the Challenge
For her part, Abigail’s attitude has been a major key in her quest for wellness.
Her favorite quote is: "When life changes to be harder, change yourself to be stronger."
She said: “I love this quote because it is exactly how I have had to be since my diagnosis. I have had to be stronger ever since then and determined to get better and work harder than ever and it is paying off because I am so much better than I was four-and-a-half years ago.”
One vital decision the family made was to keep sending Abigail to school – sans an extended period after COVID --- as often as possible (sometimes treatments and/or bouts with severe fatigue get in the way).
“Emotionally, it would kill her,” said Kerri of Abigail not attending school. “She really likes school. She likes to be with her friends. The biggest thing, in these last four-and-a-half years, is that she is telling herself to live. Now, we have to allow her to live. If we are going to quarantine her and isolate her to our home, then what are we doing all of this for? We take greater measures than the average family, but we have allowed her to go school.”
That’s not to say it has been easy.
“Abigail has never allowed this disease to define her or change the course of her life,” said Kerri. “She continues to live her life to the fullest and pushes through extreme sickness and fatigue, while most of her peers aren’t even aware of it. She has mastered the ability to compartmentalize this, yet not take opportunities with friends and family for granted.”
There is a saying at Springfield High School: Spartan Strong.
It has been exemplified by the perseverance shown by Abigail, who has not let her diagnosis stop her from being a vital member of the cheerleading squad.
She will do whatever it takes.
Said Joe Ferraro, the athletic director: “I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her since she entered our high school. Abby came into our building battling a brain tumor which compromised her ability to walk. She often used motorized devices to navigate our hallways.
“Despite her battle, and chemotherapy treatment, Abby never failed to have a positive attitude. Despite her circumstance, she continued to support our programs, cheering alongside her teammates. She is an inspiration to our community and continues to show everyone what it means to be Spartan Strong.”
Taylor Gravel was the assistant cheerleading coaching last year and has been the head coach this year.
She has been amazed by Abigail’s maturity and grace during her struggle.
A cheerleader at Temple, she is among Abigail’s biggest fans.
“I have had the pleasure of coaching her for the last two years,” said Gravel. “Throughout those two years, she has had some ups and downs. She is still undergoing treatment – chemotherapy – for it, but she always been super positive and does whatever she can whenever it is possible.
“Physically, and mentally, I know it can take a big toll. The age that they are at, in high school, and having that physical ability taken away from her, I can’t even imagine the mental toll that it must take on her. But, you know, she handles it with such grace. It’s truly remarkable and inspiring.”
A Night to Remember
When Senior Night came this fall, the Springfield cheerleaders were joined by the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders to fete Abigail.
“This was one of my favorite nights of my career as an athletic director,” said Ferraro. “To see the excitement from our students, our cheerleaders, our football players - and Abby and her family - it was unforgettable.”
These emotions were echoed by Gravel.
“One of my favorite memories of her was our football Senior Night, when we had the Eagles cheerleaders come,” she said. “They got to walk her down the middle of the field on Senior Night and she was walking with her walker. It was just extremely touching.
“The emotion and the environment – the whole night – was insurmountable. I had never before felt a part of something that was so much bigger than myself. The emotions were running high for sure. I really am inspired daily by her. It has really been a gratifying experience.”
The event was also a surprise, organized by Tom Vizza, a teacher.
Said Abigail: “Mr. Vizza was my math teacher in ninth grade, but I have had a close relationship with him ever since. He is the football and basketball announcer at my school and has told me since ninth grade that he was going to give me a shoutout when I was a senior. I had no idea he meant by bringing the Eagles Cheerleaders to Senior Night. That was the best night ever and the best shoutout I could have ever imagined.”
For Abigail, it was the chance to share the moment with so many who have supported her and that made it “the greatest night” of her life.
“It was so exciting for my whole team and it is something I will never forget,” she said. “I knew it was in honor of me, but what made it so special is that all of my teammates and my coach got to experience something so exciting.”
A Vital Role
While she cannot participate in every facet of cheerleading, Abigail has carved an important niche for herself, and Gravel could not imagine the squad without her.
“She has had an amazing impact on our team and our program as a whole,” said Gravel. “We really do all look up to her. She is the definition of perseverance. She doesn’t let her condition slow her down in any way, shape or form. There is nothing more positive that I can say about her. She is just a great person, a great cheerleader and a great athlete.”
Gravel went on to explain what Abigail brings to the squad.
“She basically does everything with us, except stunts,” she said. “She learns all the cheers. She marks all the jumps, so she knows all the counts for the jumps. She stands with us in our football lines. She sits with us in the bleachers at our basketball games. She is with me, supporting the team, whenever they go out during a timeout or a halftime performance. She’s pretty much in it, aside from what she physically cannot participate in.
“She has come so far with her diagnosis, so I really cannot wait to see all that she continues to accomplish. Just being able to be a small part of that has been gratifying for me.”
Being a part of the team, something that others might take for granted, is an experience treasured by Abigail.
“Cheer has had an amazing impact on me because there is always a way for me to participate in cheer,” she said. “I love to cheer and it has helped me be active even though I can't do the sports I used to do. It has given me lots of friendships and made me closer with the friends I already had.
“It is also great OT (occupational therapy) for me. Even though I can't do stunting, I can always help my coach, be the team photographer, or watch my teammates do their stunts. I started cheer in eighth grade right after my diagnosis and had no idea how much I would love it.”
Added a grateful Kerri: “I think cheer, in many ways, has saved her life. I just love our whole school so much. I could go on for days about them.”
Source of Inspiration
Despite being 23 years old herself, Gravel feels blessed to have been able to experience coaching in such a unique circumstance.
Some coaches can go a whole career and not find themselves in such a situation.
“I am extremely touched,” said the 2021 Temple grad. “To be able to be a part of even a small part of her journey has been extremely gratifying -- just to be able to coach her and mentor her, and to see her cheer on her teammates and participate.”
“I feel so lucky. We have our unique experience, and I’m just glad to be a part of that.”
She went on to add that the whole squad feels the same way.
“They are incredibly supportive,” she said. “Abby is their biggest cheerleader on the sidelines. During practices, she is always offering to videotape them so we can watch what we are doing and make improvements. She is always wanting to help them to improve and be a part of it as much as she can. The team definitely reciprocates that as well. They are always cheering her on. It’s really a great environment.”
“She is, most of the time, in an automatic scooter, but she has been using her walker a lot more recently and has been going to physical therapy. Her walking has been really improving as of late.”
Kerri added that Abigail uses a LifeGlider (posterior walker) to navigate the school hallways and an electric mobility scooter (that she and friends decorated with “a ton of stickers”) for cheer and all extracurricular activities.
“Post diagnosis, she was exclusively wheelchair bound,” said Kerri. “With endless therapy and an insane amount of hard work and determination, Abigail has transitioned to walking with a cane outside of school and to the LifeGlider during school days. She has surpassed her rehab doctor's expectations and they are amazed with her progress every time they see her.”
And Kerri is not only encouraged by the progress but also by the way her daughter has stayed positive.
“I’m so proud of her,” said Kerri, fighting back tears. “She has never complained. She has taken the approach of, ‘This could be way worse, and this is my life and this is what I want. I want to be able to walk, and I will do what I’m able to do to get there.’ I have pushed the envelope, and I believe that she will walk again.”
When it comes to thanking people who have been in her corner, Abigail has a long list.
“The special people in my life are my family (including her dad, Jon, and younger brother, Jack, a freshman at Springfield) and friends and also some of my teachers,” she said. “My friends and family have stood by me and are always there for me when I need help. They support me always.”
Others include case manager Sarah Borgmann and school aide Edith Taylor, both of whom were assigned through the school district.
“(Borgmann) is always looking out for me, supporting me and letting my whole team know what is happening,” said Abigail. “(Taylor) is way more than an aide to me. She helps me with just about everything and knows me so well.”
Kerri can’t imagine the journey without either of them as guides.
She said: “The school administration assigns both the case manager and school aide. They were clearly very thoughtful in their approach with Abigail. I remember being petrified when Abigail was transitioning from middle school to the high school. The high school didn't know Abigail, pre-diagnosis, so I was worried that she may fall through the cracks. That couldn't have been farther from the truth.”
Kerri went to described Borgmann as “an angel on earth” and added that Taylor has become like a “second mom” to her daughter.
“I sent Abigail off to high school a nervous wreck - she had just started a year-long journey of weekly chemo treatments and was still in the thick of recovery from brain surgery,” she said. “The idea of germs and sickness, absences and social challenges, academics and recovery -- it was a daunting worry, to say the least.
“What I quickly realized was that Abigail was in the best hands imaginable and that she was going to be just fine. At the close of 11th grade, I asked Abigail to sum up her year in one word -- her response, without hesitation, was ‘great.’ As parents, all we want is for our children to have great experiences. As the parent of a very complex child, that hope remains, but in your heart, you hold onto the fact that even ‘good’ will do during such a tumultuous time. Yet I got a solid ‘great.’
“That is, without question, due to the school administration ensuring that Abigail has the very best high school experience, despite the many challenges she has faced. I can barely put into words my gratitude for this.”
But, as Kerri will attest, the best friend to Abigail is Abigail, who remains positive.
“It’s all perspective,” she said. “She makes life very easy for me to be her caregiver. For that, I’m grateful.
“That’s what I tell other parents. It’s a horrible diagnosis. Day to day, it’s grueling, but you can live a great and long and happy life. That is what she has worked to do, and what she is dedicated to doing.”