By Ed Morrone
NOTE: The HEADstrong Foundation will honor Marple Newtown High School senior — and cancer survivor — Sal Tartaglia at its annual Run the Park Challenge on Sunday, Sept. 23. To register for the 5K run or 1-Mile Fun Run/Walk, or to donate to the cause, click here. Take advantage of a special discount code, Forsal.
As a football player most of his life, Sal Tartaglia’s second homes were found either on a field or inside a weight room. So when the Marple Newtown High student and Broomall resident noticed a knot appear on the left side of his neck back in April, he initially thought nothing of it.
“I was working out five days a week, so I just thought it was a little neck strain,” Tartaglia recalled. “Nothing crazy, maybe a swollen gland. But it continued to get bigger.”
Tartaglia, 17, decided to get the knot checked out once its size started garnering attention from gawking students as he walked the Marple Newtown halls. His family doctor quickly assessed the knot, and blood work and a biopsy confirmed the Tartaglia’s growing fears: the growth was actually a baseball-sized tumor that tested positive for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
While he said his parents took the news hard, Tartaglia never really became an emotional wreck when forced to confront the realization that he had cancer. Well, almost never.
“It didn’t affect me much hearing I had cancer,” Tartaglia said. “Except with football. Football was the first thing I thought of because of how much I love it. They told me how long treatment might take (initially scheduled to stretch into November), and I counted the months on my hands. And I just said ‘No way, that’s not happening. I’m not missing the last 10 games I’ll ever play in my life.’”
Tartaglia began his first round of chemo shortly after his diagnosis. He chose an outpatient option in order to spend as little time in the hospital as possible, all while trying to maintain a strong semblance of normalcy. That meant a continued focus on working out and returning to the football field, which gave him a goal to strive toward during treatment.
“I just got it locked in my head that I was going to get through this and not let it ruin my life,” Tartaglia said. “There were a few restrictions, but for the most part I could do as much as I could before I got sick. To be able to keep my usual routine made me feel 10 times better, almost like I wasn’t going through chemo and I didn’t have cancer.”
Tartaglia recounted that besides multiple consecutive days of nausea and vomiting during his third round of chemo that the treatment wasn’t as grueling as he expected (he did shave his head after he started losing his hair, and also has some lingering neuropathy in his hands). Helping matters was that doctors caught the disease fairly early while reassuring Tartaglia and his family that Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was one of the most treatable and survivable cancers.
During a routine checkup in May, Tartaglia got the light at the end of the tunnel he was searching for: his scans and counts were vastly improved, and doctors told him chemo would end in July instead of November. He completed chemo on July 11, and while Tartaglia will undergo radiation treatment from Aug. 29 until Sept. 17, he has been fully cleared by doctors to return to the football field. In his first game back on Aug. 24, Marple Newtown defeated visiting KIPP DuBois, 43-0.
“It’s crazy, it never seemed real that he even had cancer because he always kept such a positive outlook,” teammate and friend Cameron Leone said of Tartaglia. “I knew he was going to get back out here. Once he said he was, nothing was stopping him.”
“The Lord above gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and Sal is one of the strongest people I know,” added Marlon Weathers, Tigers running back and Tartaglia’s friend for 10 years. “He’s overcoming it, and it’s a blessing. He’s made the whole community proud.”
For his part, Tartaglia said he never would have gotten through this ordeal without the support of his family, friends, football teammates and coaches and the entire Marple Newtown community as a whole. The love shown for Tartaglia was effervescent, and he wants everybody to know he felt every bit of that during treatment.
“It’s been overwhelming,” he said. “Family, doctors, teammates, friends, teachers…everybody in the community had my back. Just knowing people care about you, I loved it. If people wanted to talk, I’d answer every call and message.
“At the beginning of this, I did cry a little bit, but when I went to bed that night I said ‘I’ll be fine, everything will be alright. It panned out, and I’m very lucky.”