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Earlville sophomore Dalton Ambler has overcome a rare form of cancer to return to sports for the Earlville-Leland co-op. Ambler was injured during soccer practice and ensuing trips to the doctor led to the discovery of synovial sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer that affects one to three people in a million each year. The sophomore had surgery to remove the tumor in his lungs and missed the soccer season, but is back playing basketball for the Leland-Earlville freshman/sophomore team. NewsTribune photo/Amanda Whitlock
A collision with a goal post in preseason practice set off a series of events that cost Dalton Ambler his season on the prep soccer pitch this fall.
But Ambler is lucky.
Without the mishap, it could have been game over for the Earlville sophomore.
“It started out at practice — just an ordinary practice. It was kind of wet out that morning and I was doing defense. I went back to clear a ball and my foot slipped out and I slid back and hit the goal post right under my right-side ribs,” Ambler recalled. “It kind of hurt a little bit but I toughed it out and kept going.”
The injury didn’t subside and later that weekend after persistent pain and trouble breathing, Ambler went to the emergency room for X-rays of his ribs.
What followed was a whirlwind for Ambler and his family.
“They took an X-ray and they said (his ribs) weren’t broken, but they were bruised. So, (they said) ‘take a couple days off practice and see your doctor on Tuesday,’” said Ambler’s mother, Kristen. “Well, they called on Monday morning. First they said he had a mass on his esophagus and he needed a CT scan, but the other doctor wanted to see him as well because they thought his liver was bruised from the pain.
“So we went and saw her on Monday afternoon. She said, ‘We’re not going to wait until Thursday to do this CT scan, we’re going to do it right now.’”
Possible diagnosis varied after a mass was discovered with the CT scan.
“We did all kinds of lab work and tests for two weeks and we went back down to Peoria and all the lab work came back good — he didn’t have any crazy numbers or anything. They thought it was a benign nerve tumor that was attached to the lining of his rib cage,” Kristen said.
Surgery to remove the mass was scheduled for Sept. 27.
But, as had been the case all along, things were not as simple as they originally appeared.
“It was supposed to be an hour and a half surgery. The surgeon came out after an hour and a half and he said that it was really ugly. He showed us pictures they’d taken while they were in there, and he was pretty sure it was cancerous,” Kristen said. “He had never seen anything like it before. So they removed the bottom third of his right lung. It ended up being a six-hour surgery and four days in the hospital.”
After 13 days of analysis on the tumor, the Mayo Clinic responded with the results. “They said it was a synovial sarcoma, which is like a one-in-a-million-type of soft tissue cancer. At that point they were pretty certain it had to be somewhere else in him,” Kristen said.
According to Sarcomahelp.org, “about one to three individuals in a million people” are diagnosed with synovial sarcoma each year. According to the site, “The disease starts most commonly in the legs or arms, but it can appear in any part of the body,” and spreads to distant sites in up to 50 percent of cases.
“We went back to Peoria and he had a full-body scan. (Afterwards), they told us that it wasn’t in any other part of his body. So he became the 16th person in the world to have a synovial sarcoma primary in his lung,” Kristen said. “It’s just that uncommon for it to be primary in his lung.”
Some people say they’re crazy about sports. Dalton Ambler truly is crazy about soccer.
It wasn’t having a rare form of cancer he struggled with throughout the ordeal — it was missing his sophomore season on the pitch after having a big role on the Red Raiders varsity as a freshman.
“I’ve had a lot of family history of cancer. My grandma died of breast cancer and my grandpa had a bone marrow transplant and my other grandpa has it now. So I was kind of ready for it to be cancerous — it didn’t really scare me. But when the doctor up there told me that I wouldn’t be able to play this season, it really hurt me because I love playing soccer and I was really good this year in practice. I was going to start varsity,” Dalton said, the emotion in his voice ringing through as he lamented his lost season.
“You know you love playing soccer, but when this actually happens to you, it makes you feel how much it means to you — so much.”
Before his surgery, Dalton even tried to convince his surgeon to postpone the procedure until after the soccer season.
“He was pissed off. He was so pissed. He tried to make a deal with that surgeon for over an hour — like ‘I’ll let you fix me during basketball season if you let me have the soccer season,’” Kristen said. “He’s like, ‘I live for soccer.’ The surgeon was like, ‘Sorry buddy, I can’t let you, we’ve got to fix you.’ He said, ‘ I promise I’ll try to get you back for basketball.’”
The surgery was a success, and later scans have shown Dalton to be cancer free. Looking back, Kristen said the initial injury suffered at soccer practice probably turned out to be a life saver for her son with the early detection of the five-centimeter tumor.
“It probably would have been game over. (The tumor) was that big,” Kristen said. “Had it spread anywhere else and not been contained like it was — most everything I’ve read says people have lived like eight months to a year after that. It’s pretty much a death sentence. The survival rate is 25 percent if it spreads past primary.”
Now after a successful surgery, Dalton’s prognosis calls for the start of soccer practice next fall.
And it turns out his surgeon kept his promise.
Just two months out of surgery, Dalton was already back playing for the Earlville-Leland freshman-sophomore boys basketball team.
“He did it. He missed six practices, but he started the first game,” Kristen said. “In the beginning, he played like half of a quarter. That’s all he could do. Now he’s at the point where he can play the whole game.
“He’ll go and go and go until his body can’t do anything more — then he’ll just drop,” Kristen added.
Dalton said he is getting back on track.
“I feel fine. I’m still sore from surgery — like where I had my ribs pushed up — but everything else seems to be working fine,” Dalton said.
Why did he rush back to action so soon?
“My team needed me and I love playing sports. That’s what I’ve always loved to do — what I always will love. That’s what kept me going through all this, being able to come back and be playing.
“All my teammates and brothers were getting me going, telling me to ‘come back quick. We need you.’ It was something to look forward to — getting healthy quick and getting back out there,” said Ambler, who added his teammates and schoolmates showed a ton of support as he healed from his surgery.
One memory in particular stands out.
“I was hanging out with my family and some family friends one night in the garage and I heard a bunch of yelling so I walked outside, and here comes the whole (soccer) team walking down to ask me to go on a walk with them. It kind of made me start to cry because I could tell how much I meant to them,” Dalton said. “I knew they wanted me back out there. … I just looked forward to getting back out there with them.”
Dalton, who scored six points Wednesday night for the Red Raiders sophomore hoops squad, will be out doing what he does best — outside of a soccer field of course — when he suits up Jan. 25 for Earlville-Leland’s JV game against Paw Paw. It will be “Dollars for Dalton at Pack-the-Place Night” with raffles — including an autographed Brian Urlacher Chicago Bears Jersey — baked goods, silent auction, youth cheerleaders, a hamburger/hotdog dinner and more starting at 4:30 p.m. to help the Amblers offset the cost of Dalton’s medical expenses.
He will be glad to be there, back on the court with his teammates.
“It feels real good to be back playing sports again — to be able to be alive,” Dalton said. “(I’m thankful for) all they did for me to get me back so quick. I’m glad I bounced back quickly so I get to live my dream again and play sports.”
It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine. But there’s no question that for Dalton Ambler, the best medicine is sports.
Chris Yucus can be reached at 220-6995 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsChris.
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