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Written by Valerie Russell

Biola women's tennis partnered with Children's Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) on Saturday, Sept.27 to give tennis lessons to cancer patients who have recently lost limbs. Through a team effort of Biola women’s tennis, CHOC social worker Jenee Areeckal, and volunteers from the Orthotic and Prosthetic Assistance Funds, five young cancer survivors learned to play tennis using their prosthetic legs and wheelchairs.

The clinic, in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, was held on the courts of Santa Ana College. One of the participants was Timothy Lau, a freshman studying pre-nursing at Biola.

Lau, 18, of Irvine, was diagnosed with bone cancer after stumbling over the fifth hurdle during a high school track meet in May of 2005. His left knee continued to ache for more than two weeks. Concerned, Lau made an appointment and the doctors discovered he had cancer. By August of that year, Lau had undergone chemotherapy and a limb salvage that replaced the bone in his leg with a metal prosthetic.

“I’m surprised how mobile I am,” Lau said about playing tennis. His surgeons told him to avoid contact sports and anything incorporating fast movements.

Another one of the patients, Anthony Alaniz, 17, was diagnosed in March 2007 with osteogenic sarcoma. He has a prosthetic leg now but hasn’t yet conquered walking on it.

“It’s tough having to learn how to walk again,” he said, but as he wheeled himself across the court and returned balls over the net, the wide grin across his face spoke of great encouragement. Biola tennis coach Dee Henry eagerly jumped into a wheelchair and rolled across the cement to help Alaniz with his backhand. “Awesome!” she yelled each time his racket touched the ball, “That’s it! You got it!” His smile grew bigger each time.

Biola alum and cancer survivor since 1987, Craig Stewart, watched from the baseline, a green tennis racket tucked into the back of his wheelchair. Stewart was one of two nationally ranked wheelchair players at the clinic that morning.

“Playing tennis puts me on the same level as an able-bodied person and it feels great to be able to play with an able-bodied person and win,” said Stewart. “It gives me so much joy to see these kids out here. It’s not about hitting balls. It’s about getting back into life.”

With weekly appointments and endless blood work, cancer patients are forced to deal with their life “fading away” as CHOC social worker Jenee Areeckal stated, explaining that all five of the patients there on Saturday had to be taken out of school for six months to a year for therapy.

“Cancer becomes your life. You lose your hair. You lose a limb. You lose yourself in this disease,” said Areeckal, who coordinated the 3-hour event. She is a cancer survivor herself and wanted to give “her kids” the same confidence she found in picking up the racket.

“I just want them to know that they can do anything. Anything is possible,” she said.

Areeckal’s steadfast passion of encouragement is evident. Her entire focus is to give the young patients confidence. She explained that playing sports is an effective way for cancer patients to assimilate back into life after all of their treatment.

“Coach Dee [Henry] is incredible. She helped realize I could do this,” Areeckal said as she remembered her first time playing tennis with her prosthetic leg. Although she expected to watch from the sidelines, Henry had convinced her onto the court and had her hitting balls for hours. Areeckal and Coach Henry play for 3 hours every week in addition to Henry’s weekly tennis course for disabled people now. After Areeckal fell in love with tennis, she then learned to swim and ski.

“Tennis gives these kids and people like me the opportunity to play with anyone. This gives them a little glimpse of what they can do,” she said. “The sky is the limit.”

The Orange County Register also covered the CHOC-Biola event featuring 13 year-old patient Robert Ram. Read the OC Register article