Buffalo Sabres All-Star goaltender Ryan Miller and his teammates were en route to the franchise's most successful start to a season when one of the team's biggest fans, 17-year-old Nate Joachimi of North Tonawanda, got the toughest news of his life.
He had cancer.
As a North Tonawanda High School junior and goaltender for the school's club hockey team, Nate was diagnosed Oct. 16, 2006, with acute lymphocytic leukemia -- the same condition then afflicting Miller's cousin, Matthew "Matt Man" Schoals.
The paths of the two goaltenders crossed again Tuesday at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Miller, whose cousin died last month from complications relating to treatment, announced a partnership between his Steadfast Foundation and Carly's Club for Kids, a group founded to offer support programs for children and their families affected by cancer.
"It's close to my heart," said the 27-year-old Miller, who enjoyed pizza afterward with about three dozen pediatric patients at Roswell Park.
The partnership is designed to improve the lives of pediatric cancer patients and their families by enhancing the emotional and psychological supports needed to battle cancer. Besides regularly scheduled visits to Roswell Park, the partnership also will provide:
* Group outings and special events to help children and families escape the rigors of treatment and connect with other families.
* Social work and school intervention assistance to help children succeed with their studies during and after treatment.
* The annual Cancer in the Classroom program for families and educators.
* Support programs for inpatients of the Pediatric Center at Roswell Park.
"We want to assure everyone had the best environment possible to survive," Miller said. "You can never imagine how difficult this disease can be on an entire family until you've experienced it firsthand."
The Joachimi family attests to that. A child diagnosed with cancer has ripple effects across the entire family. It is emotionally and psychologically trying not only on the patient, but for the parents and siblings who are forced to cope in myriad ways themselves.
"The things that used to be significant have become trivial, and the things that used to be trivial are more significant," said Suzette Joachimi, Nate's mother, who is a nurse at Roswell Park and spent 13 years in pediatrics.
Nate -- a healthy, strong teenager by appearance -- has been in remission since last November. He spent much of last school year being tutored at home, but he is now back in regular high school classes. Nate still takes daily oral chemotherapy and is in a "maintainance" program through the hospital until February 2010.
"You have to roll with the punches," Nate says. "I had a lot of support from my family, my teachers, my doctors."
Support programs provided by Carly's Club and the Steadfast Foundation are "critical" to patients and families, according to Dr. Michael A. Zevon, the chairman of psychosocial oncology at Roswell Park.
"When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it's unparalleled," Zevon said. "It's the most stressful thing families can face because it turns nature upside down."
Added Dr. Martin L. Brecher, chairman of pediatrics at Roswell Park: "When a kid gets sick, the whole family gets sick."
The good news, Brecher says, is that 75 percent of pediatric cancer patients eventually are cured of the disease. But that makes the types of psychosocial support programs being promoted by Miller and Carly's Club all the more important.
"We certainly don't want to have them medically healthy but psychologically crippled," Brecher added.
Chuck Collard, Carly's Club chairman, knows firsthand how cancer disrupts family life.
The group owes its name to his daughter -- the late Carly Cottone Collard -- who lost her birth parents to cancer before she was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 8. Carly founded the group using donations given to her and put the money toward helping other children at Roswell Park. When she died in August 2002, she was 11.
"A child is going to come through these doors tomorrow," Collard said. "We have to be ready and prepared to offer these programs."