Teen soccer team rallies behind coach's daughter who has rare brain cancer
SANTA ROSA, Calif. - A North Bay family - fighting long odds - has found unexpected help from a teenage soccer team.
"We're going through a lot," admits soccer coach Chris Daly, whose young daughter is battling brain cancer. "But when you have people supporting you it's easier to get through hard times."
Among several club teams he coaches, Daly guides a squad of 16-year-old girls.
"I have them for one more year, then they're off to college," he said, as the North Coast Football Club 04' Girls ran drills behind him.
During three years of competition, the players became aware of their coach's off-field challenges.
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"Everything seemed normal at first," said spouse Amber Daly, recalling how daughter Blake developed flu-like symptoms at 11 months old.
When her lethargy and nausea could not be explained by her pediatrician, the couple took Blake to an emergency room in Santa Rosa.
"Her heart rate was dropping, and they did an instant MRI and found a massive tumor and airlifted her to UCSF," recounted Chris.
Blake had a 4-inch tumor in her 5-inch skull, and it was removed immediately to relieve pressure.
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She was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer, AT/RT.
She spent her first birthday in the hospital, launching four years of alternating treatments, hope, and setbacks.
"Every three months she would have a scan, so you would live fully for three months," said Amber, describing how Blake would respond to treatment and rebound but only until tumors returned.
That was the crushing news the soccer team heard this spring.
"We all came to practice and Chris had just gotten the call that Blake's cancer came back and we all kind of experienced it in the moment," said Taylor Ingram.
They felt compelled to do something.
"This could be any of us," said Ingram, "and it's scary, absolutely."
The team launched "Bracelets for Blake," selling rubber bracelets at $5 dollars each.
Three hundred sold swiftly, and a new shipment of 400 just arrived.
They've been able to hand the family $1,500 for their needs and to support research into childhood cancer.
Blake will soon start another trial medication.
Her parents are frustrated to have learned only about 4% of government funding for cancer research targets pediatric disease.
"Children need better treatment options because the ones they have either aren't working or are too hard on them," said Amber.
Blake has been through high-dose chemotherapy, proton radiation, stem-cell transplant, gamma-knife surgery, and experimental medications, all seeking to defeat her tumor growth.
But the treatments and their complications have also taken a toll on her health.
"Blake's cancer, as well as other childhood cancers, are so rare and so aggressive, they're difficult to figure out," said Chris, "but her spirit, this positive amazing little girl has never gone away."
Blake likes to play with her parents and little brother, and sing along with her favorite movies, although she can no longer walk and her eyes droop half-shut.
"She is the strongest little girl, she has gone through all of this with a smile and she never complains," said Chris.
His teenage athletes feel the same admiration.
In addition to the bracelets, they have made tie-dye T-shirts embroidered with the words "Our Daly Inspiration" and surprised Coach Daly by hiding them under their uniforms.
"It almost brought me to tears, they almost had me in tears that's for sure," he said.
"We feel like a family, not just a soccer club," said Chris, coming together with his players in a group huddle.
The team says they are returning the moral support their coach has shown them.
"We've all had our hard days, but coming to practice lifts us up and makes our days better, " said Ingram. "So we wanted all of this to be a great surprise, and perfect, and it was."