FRANKLIN — Carson Anderson’s hair is soaked. His jersey is soaked. It’s not even halftime.
He shouts orders until his voice cracks and congeals again. His lungs seem to be in top shape. Every morsel of energy seems to jitter from his arms and shoulders as he patrols midfield, a sweat-drenched spark plug in shin guards. The two-story-tall trees behind his Independence team’s bench peer down expressionless without a clue of the story that lay beneath them.
It’s a miracle Anderson’s here.
In 2018, the medical feedback his parents got said he had about a 22% chance to live after the Ewing sarcoma — a rare form of bone cancer — in his left foot had spread to his lungs.
“We were about to have a ‘bucket list’ talk with him … with a 16-year-old,” said his dad, Randy. “How do you ask a 16-year-old what he wants to do before he dies?”
Also, how do you ask a 16-year-old to stop living?
Anderson, now a senior at Independence, never stopped thinking about soccer during treatment for his illness. It was his sword against cancer, a bridge to the other side.
“I’ve been blessed,” Anderson said. “It’s coming up on two years since I beat it and, you know, I’m doing well.”
Cancer’s effects are physical, psychological, financial and altogether brutal.
But casual fans watching Anderson slide and tackle against Franklin at Burchett-Shrader Field on Tuesday might have had trouble identifying anything was ever wrong with him.
‘I think I’m back, boys’
Ewing sarcoma is most common in children and young adults, but it’s only found in about 200 young people each year in the U.S., according to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
It’s most common in soft tissue around bones. In the fall of 2018, Anderson thought the bump on his left pinky toe was just a large cyst, but a doctor discovered a tumor, and during a lung scan four days later X-rays revealed three cancer modules in his lungs.
His chance of survival plummeted by roughly 50%.
He underwent nine months of chemotherapy and three surgeries: one to amputate the pinky toe infected by the tumor; another one after the toe didn’t heal properly; and one to insert a port in his chest.
(Anderson has also broken both ankles over the past two and a half years, the left fracture likely stemming from imbalances caused by his tumor and the right from an unlucky injury while trying to return to full-time soccer.)
Each time he rounded a corner during his medical battle, it turned out he was running circles with it. Anderson thought he was effectively done with treatment following chemotherapy, but almost two months of lung radiation followed to make sure the cancer didn’t return.
“I was a stereotypical chemotherapy cancer patient. I lost all my hair all over my body. I was extremely pale. My bones were extremely weak,” he said.
Nurses on his hospital floor dubbed him Superman because he didn’t seem to get as ill as other chemotherapy patients.
His fitness and athletic background may have helped.
Anderson looks so much like his dad: shape, size, voice, everything. Randy Anderson grew up in the Houston area and qualified for the U-19 U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. He was heavily recruited by UCLA and North Carolina, he said, but his legs didn’t stay healthy enough to get a full college ride. Even at 50 he looks like a professional athlete.
Anderson’s got a similar build honed through years of playing. But he had to reactivate himself after being cleared to resume in the summer of 2019.
He discovered the importance of the pinky toe he no longer had. He’d had bone and cartilage all the way back to his heel removed during surgery. His cleats have never fit the same, and balancing on two feet required a whole new approach.
Randy isn’t sure where his son would be now without the scholarship he received from Nashville-based Survivor Fitness, which helps cancer survivors regain total fitness. It covered four months of training.
Anderson vividly remembers when his body came back to him.
Before the pandemic wiped out sports last spring, he texted 16 teammates to assemble an 8-on-8 scrimmage.
“My friend Alex Johnson sent me a pass,” Anderson said. “I opened up like I normally would across my body and saw the goal and rifled one into the top corner from 20 yards out. That was the moment it clicked in my head … I thought to myself, ‘I’m back, boys.’
“It was like a part of me had been dead and come back to life.”
Soccer motivated Anderson to see what life could be beyond cancer.
But the illness has many layers, its costs coming in different forms, and the Andersons needed more help than sports could provide.
Anderson faced his first depression bouts. It was hard for his parents because they’d raised a happy and social kid. During the toughest times, Randy and his son talked soccer. But afterward even Randy would retire to the shower and cry.
The family began talking about Godwinks — hints that a higher power was taking care of them — and watched for clues every day. For instance, Anderson wears jersey No. 22 like his dad did. Ewing sarcoma involves deficiency in chromosome 22.
Medical bills for five-day chemotherapy sessions and hospital stays exceeded $100,000. The Andersons’ savings were virtually tapped out, which underscored the importance of the Survivor Fitness scholarship.
Community support for Anderson was through the roof, especially in 2019 when Grace Christian defeated Gatlinburg-Pittman for the Class A state championship. Anderson was healthy enough to play a few emotionally charged minutes that electrified home and visiting fans alike.
Even the pandemic, a global crisis that threatened immunosuppressed cancer survivors like himself, offered something of an assist.
The reason: Anderson had decided it was time to leave Grace Christian. There was no ill will toward the small school. Its outpouring of support was strong and welcomed. But it came with an unwanted side effect — constantly being recognized as the kid who beat cancer was a painful mental trigger that made it necessary, he said, for him to move forward somewhere else.
That’s what took him to Independence. Had the pandemic not wiped out the 2020 spring season, he likely wouldn’t have been eligible to change schools and retain eligibility for his senior year, due to TSSAA rules that require players to sit out for at least one year after transferring.
Godwinks, the Andersons will tell you.
Their sterile hospital chairs have been replaced with outdoor folding ones, stationed along sidelines that seemed far away during hard days of their son’s illness.
Anderson will be off to college soon. Last week he committed to play soccer at Tusculum University.
Independence coach Eric Bossman spoke to players for about 15 minutes after Tuesday’s game at Franklin, but that wasn’t enough for Anderson — he launched into his own analysis with the coach afterward, spitting through sentences about discipline.
Bossman just grinned when asked about his senior midfielder’s journey.
“The word ‘miracle’ comes to mind,” he said.