‘All things work for good’ for teen who fought cancer
By Julie Filby
Peter Srsich lay sick in bed at Children’s Hospital in Aurora. The teenager’s pain was so intense he’d begun to lose hope. After weeks of chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was sinking into a depression.
Since entering the hospital, he had welcomed a friend and classmate from Denver’s Mullen High School who brought him the Eucharist. However, this day was different. Srsich had lost interest.
“I was totally wiped out, I didn’t care anymore, I had actually lost my faith at that point,” Srsich said. “I just didn’t even want to see him right there, especially with the Eucharist.”
When his friend lifted the host and said “Body of Christ,” everything changed.
“I could actually feel Jesus in the room,” he said. “It was like he was actually sitting in the room with me, and I could see that he cared about me, and that he was with me.”
Instantly his hope and faith returned. Within 24 hours, the painful sores that covered his mouth and digestive system cleared up and he was able to go home. It was this, and other blessings that helped Srsich get through seven rounds of chemo and 20 days of radiation.
Diagnosis and support
The Mullen junior was wrapping up the school year in May 2011 when he developed a cough. Not thinking much of it, the 6-foot-6-inch, 200-pound honor student, lacrosse player, Eagle Scout and Taekwondo black belt went ahead with a two-week canoe trip.
Later, after being diagnosed with bronchitis, he continued his routine and attended a lacrosse camp.
“I was still coughing,” he recalled. “I felt exhausted. I started having trouble with day-to-day things.”
A different doctor suspected pneumonia and sent him for a chest X-ray. The X-ray didn’t show pneumonia; instead it revealed a softball-sized tumor in his chest.
“That turned my world upside down,” the now 18-year-old said.
The tumor was so large it was compressing his lungs and aorta. Srsich was rushed to the emergency room for test after test to determine the cause of the tumor. Due to its size and location, it took a week to diagnose: diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
Because the cancer had come on so aggressively, it had to be treated aggressively.
Family and friends surrounded Srsich with support, including wearing silicon wristbands in lime green, the color designated for lymphoma awareness. One side was printed “Praying for Peter;” the other “Romans 8:28,” his longtime favorite Bible verse: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
“We ordered 600 bracelets,” said his mother Laura Srsich, “then another 600.
“It was very interesting how Romans 8:28 would pop up in readings or devotionals when he really needed it.”
The outpouring of prayer support was far-reaching, including then-Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Auxiliary Bishop James D. Conley, NFL star Tim Tebow, and clergy and laity all over the world.
“(The wristbands) were huge in his life because of the power of prayer,” said his mother who choked up several times recalling the ordeal. “Peter’s doctors said he did so much better than expected … that kid’s amazing!
“I am so proud of how he dealt with all of this with grace and humility.”
A wish comes true
From July through November 2011, Srsich spent 65 nights in the hospital. During that time, he was referred to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Through the foundation, children from 2 to 17 with a life-threatening medical condition are granted a “wish.”
“It was a great way to take my mind off the stress … thinking about what I was going to wish for,” he said. “The chemo helped me fight the cancer, and Make-A-Wish helped me fight the chemo.”
During his wish interview, Srsich shared his dream of becoming a priest. To provide courage and inspiration for his future, he couldn’t think of a better wish than being blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.
That was a new one for the Colorado foundation.
“They’d never heard that wish before,” said Laura Srsich. “(But they said) ‘we’ll do it; we’ll figure it out.’’’
Five days after Srsich graduated from Mullen in May, a stretch limo arrived to drive his family—mother Laura, father Tom, and younger brother Johnny—to the airport to board a plane for Rome.
The morning of May 30, they were seated upfront for the pope’s general audience at St. Peter’s Square.
“There was so much energy,” said Laura Srsich of the environment.
Following the address, Srsich took his place in line for a private conversation with the pontiff. While waiting, he noticed others in line had exquisite gifts to present to the pope.
“I was like the Little Drummer Boy with my 30-cent wristband,” he said with a laugh.
When he reached Pope Benedict, he kissed his ring and offered him the wristband explaining why people were “Praying for Peter” and how Romans 8:28 had strengthened him while battling cancer.
The pope put his hand on Srsich’s chest to bless him. It was the exact location where the tumor had been.
“I hadn’t mentioned where the tumor was,” Srsich shared.
Scans for cancer in October came back clean and Srsich will continue to be checked regularly. In August, he started his freshman year at Denver’s Regis University, where he is majoring in philosophy and theology. In two years he hopes to enter St. John Vianney Theological Seminary for priestly formation.