The outfielder is speeding across the grass, intently tracking the white ball’s trajectory against the brilliant blue sky. Running. Running. Left arm extended. Rotating his glove for a back-handed catch. Reaching to where he anticipates the ball will be.
The thwack of the ball in his leather baseball glove brings elation. He ends his run in a satisfied trot, pivots and tosses the ball to the second baseman.
Aaron Miranda smiles from the shaded dugout at his teammate. He’s been playing baseball for only about four years. He’s nowhere as skilled as his buddies who’ve been playing since first grade. But he loves the game. He does.
And he so misses the exhilaration of catching a baseball on the run. “I can’t wait to do that. I can’t wait to play ball again,” he says.
It’s been about four weeks since the Terra Linda High School senior returned home to California from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He’s still feeling some aftereffects of his cancer treatments. Six weeks of daily proton treatments. Five weeks of chemotherapy.
“The treatments have affected my vision,” Aaron says. “It’s a little blurry in my right eye. But the doctor said it would go away. I haven’t tested out catching a baseball and testing my depth perception yet. I want to do that soon.”
Last September, doctors in San Rafael, California, discovered a lesion beside Aaron’s right eye. “It looked like a large grape,” Aaron recalls. By the time of his surgery in November, “it grew to the size of a walnut.”
An incision was made across Aaron’s right eyelid to his right temple. “They opened it up and cut out a small piece of bone to enter behind my eye,” says Aaron. “They moved some muscle and nerves. And they had a clear opening to the lesion.”
Doctors removed the mass and found it to be a rare type of carcinoma, a periorbital cancer. “They were worried that the microcells of the cancer were still working around in there,” he says. “My biggest fear was that I would lose my right eye. So, that’s why they sent me to Houston. My doctor wanted me to go to Texas. He knew there was specialist there who’s been using protons for a lot of years to treat this kind of cancer.”
The doctors, nurses and radiation therapists at MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center put Aaron and his mom at ease. “They were awesome,” he says. Aaron was the 5,000th patient treated at the center, which opened in 2006.
A radiation therapist set up the gantry at a specific angle to fire protons at a target area precisely near Aaron’s right eye. Aaron recalls that when they fired the protons the first time, “I started to smell the protons themselves. Like something burning. So, I asked questions. ‘Is my smelling the protons normal?’ They said, ‘Yes. For some patients, they smell it.’” He learned the scent was related to the proximity of the proton entrance dose to his nostrils, just inches away.
“The chemo was the real one that was taking a toll on me,” Aaron says. “I would feel really weak and nauseous. I had to have my mom wheelchair me out because I couldn’t walk.” Steroids helped relieve Aaron of his fatigue and nausea, which are common side effects of chemotherapy. “When the steroids weren’t working, I was much weaker,” he remembers.
“By the time of my last proton treatment, I had made so many friends at MD Anderson,” Aaron says. “I was so happy. I laid down on that treatment table and I said to myself, ‘Let’s get this over with. Let’s see where this takes me now.’”
Aaron hopes to attend the University of California this fall. He’s eyeing either the Berkeley or Davis campuses. He wants to be a physicist. He thinks that would be a great career.
But for now, looking out at his teammates on the ball field, practicing for the next game, Aaron just wants to be among them.
There are about a dozen games left before the season ends in early May. It’s Aaron’s last season with the high school squad. He knows he’ll be out there soon. Running. Running. And catching one more fly ball.