UNIONTOWN - Renee Lease had a wedding she was scheduled to attend this fall, one she said would have been a lot of fun.
But she decided not to go because she didn't want to miss her son Brendan's football game. It was just one regular-season game, but for Renee it meant more.
It was an opportunity to see Brendan, who is a senior defensive back for Francis Scott Key, make some tackles and run around under the Friday night lights.
It was an opportunity she wasn't sure would ever be possible not so long ago. Brendan making a tackle didn't seem feasible in the late summer of 2008.
Noticing his neck had been swollen, Brendan showed his parents and they immediately took him to a doctor's office.
The diagnosis was Burkitts-like Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and Brendan suddenly faced a challenge no seventh-grader should have to face - beating cancer.
For Renee, telling her 12-year-old son the news was one of the hardest moments of her life.
"I remember the phone call and I took it back in our bedroom so I wasn't around him," she said. "The worst part was telling him and watching him continue to look at the computer and playing a game and knowing there was nothing I could do about it."
It was just the beginning of the process for Brendan, who started a bevy of testing, which included a biopsy, in the first days of August and more procedures through the end of the month. The doctors then told the family he would need to undergo chemotherapy.
Brendan actually got a bit of good fortune when he was diagnosed. Normally non-Hodgkins lymphoma is one of the faster-moving, aggressive forms of cancer according to the American Cancer Society. But Brendan's moved slower.
"Usually within a four-month frame it's lethal. His had a certain marker in it and when they did the biopsy, they could pick apart everything about it," Renee said. "Because of that certain marker that he had, it made it stay contained longer so that is the only window that allowed him to survive."
At the start of September, Brendan began a three-month run of chemotherapy. He said that balancing week-long hospital visits with the grind of school work was challenging.
He would go to the hospital and undergo treatment for a week straight and then return home for three weeks. Not only was he receiving treatment for that week, but to start and end the week he had the chemo administered into his spinal fluid.
That procedure, known as intrathecal chemotherapy, involves a needle being inserted in the patient's back near the bottom of the spinal cord with the aim to make sure the cancer doesn't spread.
It's been five years, but Brendan, now 17, remembers the low point of his ordeal.
"I'd say midway through doing the spinal [procedure], which really hurt my back," he said. "I was definitely pretty down and just hated life."
Despite the painful procedure and the fact he couldn't muster up much energy, he fought on and was boosted by the support of his family. (Aside from his parents and siblings, Lease noted his grandmother, Joyce Wilhide, was a central supporting figure from the beginning.)
"I'd say the best thing a person could offer someone going through this is compassion. Compassion can carry us through so much knowing others are there for us," Renee said. "His brothers being so supportive [and] keeping the environment in the house feeling as normal as possible and keeping him smiling was truly important as well, to all of us."
Brendan underwent his final chemo treatment a few days before Thanksgiving in 2008, and then the waiting began. Initially, he was told by doctors the cancer had vacated his body, but there were plenty of tests left to do.
"You are so glad those toxins aren't going in there," Renee said. "But you are scared because you knew they were saving his life."
Finally, in the early weeks of January 2009, the lymphoma had officially gone into remission and the testing and treatment was done. Brendan said the month-plus wait was a period of uncertainty and angst over how his body responded to treatment.
"It was a pretty long, stressful time," he said. "I didn't know the circumstances of it until recently that it could have spread to my whole body. I should have been dead I guess you could say. I definitely appreciate life more."
In a weakened state because of the chemo and laying in bed for weeks at a time, he couldn't start playing sports again right away. But he did get into some weightlifting, which he credits with getting his body back to full strength and giving him something to occupy his mind.
After that, he began playing football and hasn't stopped. He said he often thinks about his hospital stays and all the people that were there to support him.
Now, Brendan Lease is on the field and doing what he loves to do. Although he doesn't speak frequently about what he went through, his mom hopes the story gives hope to others.
"I have a friend who was just diagnosed with breast cancer and she just started treatment," she said. "She said stories like Brendan's are her inspiration and what she focuses on to keep her going because she is scared to death."
She doesn't worry so much about him going up against other high school football players given what he has been through.
"To see him weak and laying in the hospital and knowing what could have been, he can take anything now," she said. "He's a tough guy."