Tyla Morgante, right, shares a laugh with her sister, Jana Morgante, during a Saugus High cheer practice Thursday at the School. (Item photo by Katie Morrison)
By Katie Morrison
SAUGUS — Last Thanksgiving began just like any other for Saugus High junior Tyla Morgante and her family. She’d just finished cheering with the Saugus High squad and watching her brother, Jake, play for the Sachems in their Thanksgiving Day rivalry game.
But when Tyla and her family got home, everything changed.
Tyla had been dealing with a nagging cough for a few weeks. At first, she and her mom, Lisa Morgante, assumed it was just bronchitis. When the cough didn’t go away, they worried maybe it was something else.
“I had a cough, and usually every year around the fall, I get bronchitis. But this time, it wasn’t going away,” Tyla said. “(Doctors) thought maybe I had pneumonia, tested me for tuberculosis, and everything came back negative.”
But when the family got home from the game, Lisa got a call from Tyla’s pediatrician. An x-ray revealed that the cough wasn’t pneumonia. It was cancer.
The x-ray showed growths in Tyla’s neck and lungs. The official diagnosis, which came on Dec. 4 at Children’s Hospital in Boston, was Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which had also spread to her spleen.
“She went from a cough to cancer in a week,” Lisa said. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think that’s what it was.”
What came next was five grueling months of six rounds of chemotherapy. After a biopsy and bone marrow extract, Tyla underwent surgery on Dec. 10 to implant a port for the chemotherapy, and the treatments began the next day.
“It was really scary,” Tyla, who was 16 at the time, said of the whirlwind that followed the diagnosis. “I was really scared and didn’t know what they were going to do.”
“I was heartbroken for her,” Lisa said. “I never expected her to have to go through the chemo and everything that goes along with the diagnosis, like losing her hair. She was the most nervous about that, she’s a teenage girl.”
Tyla finished her final treatment on April 15, 2016. The treatment was aggressive (“They hit her hard,” Lisa said), but on May 6, Tyla, her mom, and her siblings Jake and Jana heard the magic words.
Tyla was cancer-free.
“I only wanted to hear those words more than anything,” Lisa said.
Through the six months of hell that the Morgante family went through, there was a silver lining. The Saugus community took the family under its wing in ways Lisa and her children couldn’t have imagined.
After Tyla’s first chemo treatment, she and her mother came home from a seven-hour appointment at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to find their house filled with food. Relatives and friends joined forces with Saugus Pop Warner to set up a sort of meals on wheels service to make sure the family was well fed.
“I came home and had a cooler at my front door, unbeknownst to me that any of it was happening,” Lisa said. “I’m a single mom and that was a huge, huge help. There is still good in this world, and it’s definitely in this community.”
Saugus High also rallied around Tyla in a big way. As a captain of the winter cheer squad and a member of the fall squad, Tyla found some support in her teammates.
“Everyone was really supportive, they all did a lot for me,” she said.
Cheerleading coach Jennifer Carnevale said as soon as she told the rest of the team what Tyla was going through, the immediate response was “how can we help?”
“The girls asked how they could raise money,” Carnevale said. “But they also did thoughtful little things for Tyla, like bringing her coloring books when she couldn’t leave the house or when she was at chemo.”
The squad raised money by selling livestrong bracelets around the school. They wore purple bows at games (purple is the color of lymphoma awareness) and purple ribbons on their shoes for competitions. The money they raised went to Children’s Hospital and One Mission, a Boston-based children’s cancer support foundation.
“Everything we did with Tyla in our hearts,” Carnevale said. “You really could see the beauty of humanity and compassion of these kids.”
The Saugus High basketball team wore purple socks throughout the season in support of Tyla, and during the Saugus football team’s first home game of the season on Sept. 23, the players lined up to give Tyla roses and share some encouraging words.
“To see these rough and tough guys doing that, it was amazing,” Lisa said. “It was something I’ll never forget.
“She’s become a part of everyone’s family,” Lisa added. “They’ve taken her and us under their wing. Through such tragedy you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
While Tyla, now in her senior year, is cancer-free, the battle isn’t over. Her bones were weakened so much by the treatments, she suffered avascular necrosis, the death of bone tissue, from being on the steroid prednisone.
As she tried to get back in cheering shape for the upcoming football season, Tyla suffered a stress fracture in her femur, which required four screws and a metal plate to fix. The injury has forced her off her feet for the entire football season. Tyla uses a wheelchair and crutches to get around for the time being.
“You may hear the words “cancer free” but there’s always something else that goes along with it that you have to fight through,” Lisa said, “and that’s what she’s going through now.”
But Tyla certainly hasn’t let the cancer or injuries slow her down. Even while missing three months of school, she maintained her grades and made the honor roll each semester. She even agonized over missing cheerleading practices.
“She has the same positive attitude, she hasn’t complained once,” Carnevale said. “She gets life, gets the game. She knows she could sit here and be miserable, but that’s not a part of her nature. She truly just appreciates being alive. Most couldn’t go through it with grace and patience that she has. ”
Tyla’s now looking at colleges; she says she’s interested in early childhood education. For now, she’s enjoying the return to normalcy.
“I can go out with my friends, I can do things I want to do without worrying about what time I have to be home for medicine or stuff like that,” Tyla said.
She hopes to come back to the cheerleading squad for the winter, but Carnevale says no matter what, Tyla is a big part of the team.
“She’s my assistant coach…even wheelchair-bound or with crutches, she’s involved,” Carnevale said. “She anticipates what I need, reminds me of stuff…she definitely has her role.”
For the rest of the Morgante family, the experience has really put things into perspective.
“She just keeps fighting and pushing through,” Lisa said. “She amazes me, she’s my hero.”