A few days ago, Dante Veltri laced up his shoes for a workout at the Cardiac Kids Wrestling Club’s gym and strode onto the mat.
For thousands of young wrestlers across the country, this would have been a mundane, everyday act.
For Veltri, 15, it represented one of the biggest moments of his life.
Only a day before, Veltri had been given the “all clear” by his doctors.
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His Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was in total remission.
“I just found out last week,” Vetri said. “Yes, it really sucked to go through it, but I just kept thinking about getting back and competing next year.”
A highly successful wrestler his freshman year at Carrboro, going 32-10 and qualifying for the state championship tournament at 106 pounds, Veltri was looking forward last fall to his second varsity season with the Jaguars. His friend and teammate George Carpenter had won a state title at 113 pounds last year, and both anticipated big things for the team in 2014.
Carrboro had another good year, but not as good as it would have with Veltri.
“Dante brings a lot to the team,” Carrboro coach Dewitt Driscoll said. “We had a good season. But every time we’d accomplish something, or just missed winning something, I’d think to myself: ‘How much better it would have been if Dante were here?’”
Veltri was diagnosed with lymphoma early in the school year, shortly after he noticed a lump under his arm and went to see a physician at the urging of his mother, Karen Veltri, and DeWitt Driscoll, his coach at Carrboro High School.
He underwent a biopsy, where doctors removed a part of the mass for examination.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s over. Now I can get back to the mat as soon as the wound from the biopsy heals,’” Veltri said.
But Driscoll and Veltri’s mother had different news to deliver.
“They pulled me out of school. I didn’t think that was anything special. I had been taking painkillers, and my mom sometimes had to pull me out of school because of that,” Veltri recalled. “I sat down with my mom and coach Driscoll and they told me the news.
“My first question was about wrestling, how is this going to affect my wrestling? Can I still wrestle? They said ‘Probably not.’”
Driscoll hated to lose Veltri from his Carrboro lineup, but worried even more about the sophomore’s health.
“Being without someone like Dante was a real blow to our plans. We missed him in many ways,” Driscoll said. “He’s not very vocal, but he’s a great leader just by the way he carries himself. He leads by example.
“When people would get tired and want to quit, I’d remind them ‘Dante would do anything to be here. Keep pushing.’”
Lymphoma is one of the most subtle of cancers, rarely causing any pain in early stages. Often, the swollen lymph glands under attack don’t even hurt. The common symptoms include fatigue, a general uneasiness and itchiness, weight loss, feeling bloated and nighttime sweats. all of which often can be attributed to something else.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is considered more unpredictable than other forms of the cancer, cancer.org/ states. And it tends to go after younger people more than mature adults.
Veltri underwent a series of chemotherapy treatments that seemed to work extremely well and quickly. He never missed class because of symptoms, and only rarely because of needing time for chemotherapy sessions.
“Everyone talks about how bad it can be, but it wasn’t all that bad,” Veltri said. “Only the last round, that was bad. I got nauseated the last week.”
Regardless, with his body fighting the cancer, he had to be careful about exertion and contact with others. Fatigue was a problem, and any common infection from illness could affect his treatments.
Wrestling was the exact opposite of what his doctors wanted him to be doing.
“That was the one thing that angered me – not being able to wrestle,” he said. “I tried not to let that get me down. I tied to run every day and do sit-ups and pull-ups. But that eventually got to be once a week.”
Veltri refused to give in to the fatigue. When friends organized a “Dante Veltri 5K” in early December to help raise money for his treatments, Dante ran the route at Carrboro High alongside Carpenter and other Jaguar classmates.
Fighting for one’s life would strike most people as dramatic. For Veltri, it seemed to be more like an annoyance.
“He never got down,” Driscoll said. “Every once in a while, rarely, he’d get frustrated, but mostly he was positive the whole time that he was going to get through it.”
Armed with a belief that everything would work out right, Veltri sailed through five series of chemo treatments and saw his cancer cell counts plummet.
In late March, the numbers had just about bottomed out. He was ready to emerge from weeks of virtual isolation – a preventive measure to protect him after his immune system had been weakened by the last round of chemo.
“He felt he was ready to go, but he hadn’t been physically able to do it yet,” Driscoll said.
And so it was that Veltri got the news he was cleared for workouts. At the next opportunity, he headed up to Hillsborough for one of the thrice-weekly workouts run by coaches Mike Kendall and Driscoll.
When he walked through the door, he was surprised to see just about the entire club membership there.
“It was really awesome to see him return,” Driscoll said. “It was exciting just to see him walk back onto the mat. He acted like it was just another day. But I was really proud of him.
“I was fighting to keep my emotions in check, and I wasn’t the only one.”
Veltri said, “It was cool to see everyone. I wasn’t expecting that big a turnout. It was nice to see so many people.
“I was so glad to be back.”