Every year, the NHL hosts Hockey Fights Cancer month and always asks, “Who Do You Fight For?”

On Saturday, March 25, 2017, I walked into the doors of Silverstein Eye Centers Arena more excited than usual, for it was the day of the Missouri (Kansas City) Mavericks’ partnership event with the Have a Skate With Bob Foundation. For those of you who do not know,

“Have A Skate With Bob is a charitable organization dedicated to raising funding for pancreatic cancer research, youth hockey programs and for families dealing with pancreatic cancer through our love of ice hockey.”

HASB is run by Bob Klem, who can be seen sporting purple hair during November. I can honestly say he is one of the sweetest and most inspiring people I have ever met. 

On this particular Saturday, I was looking forward to helping cover the events the Mavericks were hosting in conjunction with HASB. From getting photographs of the all-star style game where players wear the names of those they are playing for on their jersey, to trying to publicize the silent auction, I spent all day running around.

While everyone else held in their mind someone they know who had personally been affected by cancer of some form, I had forgotten mine. To this day, I still feel guilty about it.

My aunt, Sandra, had been battling stage four breast cancer for as long as I can remember. Truthfully, I cannot remember her being healthy, just in remission. I guess I had a jaded view of what fighting breast cancer looked like, because she always had a full head of hair, full appetite, and boundless energy. A former high school teacher, she is the closest thing to a grandmother I have ever had.

Do not get me wrong, I have seen people die. I have seen people suffer. But Sandy did such a good job of hiding her pain no one noticed how bad things were until she broke down in Thanksgiving of 2015 and told our family she had run out of treatment options. Naively, I expected her to be okay. She had been my entire life, why should this time be any different?  

Well, this time was. She lost her hair for the first time in her entire life summer of 2016, and because of this, my brother was inspired to grow his hair out to donate. When Thanksgiving of 2016 rolled around, she was still herself. Sure, she was not able to eat as much, and she was getting tired quickly, but she still laughed. She still smiled.

It was then when she told us about her lungs filling with fluid. This woman was drowning in her own body, and still found the energy to laugh. In hindsight, this may have been to disguise just how bad she really was feeling. When Sandy and her husband came over for Christmas, we learned she had been in the ER and almost died.

Still, I thought she would fight it. I thought she would win. I thought she would live.

Saturday, March 25, 2017, came and went successfully for HASB and I could not have been in a better mood going to bed because of it. Saturday also marked the start of my spring break, and I was driving home the next day to Chicago to see my family. In lieu of our usual long phone calls on my drive home, my mom would only stay on the line for five minutes until she gave a vague excuse to hang up, ending every phone call saying we needed to talk when my brother and I arrived home.

Immediately, I knew something was wrong, but I mistakenly thought we had somehow maddened her. I wracked my mind the entire drive, getting more and more of a sinking feeling with every mile.

When my brother and I finally reached Chicago, my mom and dad told us to sit down. I do not know how I knew, but I guessed correctly that my aunt had died.

Apparently, while I was working the HASB/Mavericks events, my aunt passed away in the middle of the Mavericks’ game.

My brother donated his hair the very next day in honor of my aunt. Meanwhile, I am still processing her death. Still dealing with the guilt of not thinking of her that day, and not being here to say goodbye. For naively believing she would make it through her fight with cancer again, and not treating her any differently. However, if you knew my aunt, you would agree I treated her and thought of her the way she wanted to be until her last day.

Mitchell Hoffmann holding his hair for donation immediately after returning from the barbershop. Photo: Samantha Hoffmann/The Sin Bin

I am so eternally thankful to Bob Klem for giving my aunt’s last day on earth meaning to me, and for all he has done and continues to do in the fight against cancer.

To answer the NHL’s question, I fight for Sandra.

While we are still looking for ways to prevent cancer, you can help right now. Make sure both you and your loved ones are screened regularly. Volunteer. Donate if you can. Most importantly, be there for anyone fighting.

HASB begins its fall tour this Saturday, November 18th with the Rockford IceHogs.

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