All swimmers have an appreciation for how precious time is.
So do cancer survivors.
Cameron MacDonald is both.
Stunned after being diagnosed with pediatric Hodgkin lymphoma as a freshman, MacDonald, now a junior, has made a remarkable comeback.
Not only has he rejoined his Williamsville North teammates, he swam fast enough this season to earn a spot on the Section VI team that will compete this weekend at the New York State Swimming and Diving Championships. Erie Community College's Flickinger Center will host the event Friday and Saturday.
MacDonald was sitting in a freshman biology class the day the lymphatic system was being taught. He learned that it's normal for lymph nodes to swell when you're sick. His lymph nodes had been swollen for months.
"I asked my teacher [motioning to his neck] if this is what he was talking about and he said 'yeah,' " said MacDonald, then 15. "So I figured I should go and get them checked out [by a doctor] since it had been five or six months since they'd been there, and it just didn't go away. It turned out to be Hodgkins."
He said the news left him "shocked" and "rattled," but equally as determined.
Since 2002 MacDonald and his family had been volunteers for Carly's Crossing, a unique open-water swim event that brings hundreds of swimmers and spectators together each year to Buffalo's waterfront in support of pediatric cancer research and treatment at Roswell Park Cancer Center.
MacDonald was in need of the help that for years he had been providing to others.
Carly's Crossing features three different course options: 600-yard swim, 1-mile swim, and a 1-mile timed, competitive swim. Swimmers raise pledges to participate in one or more of the featured courses.
Carly Collard Cottone's story is heartbreaking. She was 11 years old when she died on Aug. 16, 2002, a few weeks before she would have entered sixth grade at Casey Middle School. She had lost both parents to cancer.
The close-knit Williamsville swimming community quickly came up with the yearly swimming fundraiser to keep her memory alive and raise money for research. This past summer the organization passed $1 million in donations.
The support of Carly's Crossing, his family, teammates and friends helped MacDonald get through the difficult chemo treatments.
"He just never gave up, his spirits were never down, he was always positive," said senior teammate Sam Zwierzchowski. "He was always ready to take on the next challenge. His teammates are amazed he won his battle with cancer, and then came back and he was an even faster swimmer on top of that. That is unbelievable."
MacDonald's sophomore year was basically a lost season. He lost weight, muscle mass and his joints ached, but his thoughts were with those who were worse off.
"The toughest part for me was seeing the other kids because my disease, there was a set structure on how to get better and there was a high survival rate. It was kind of predictable," he said.
"But some of the other kids at the hospital don't know, and it's much more painful because maybe they had been there before I got there, and were still there when I left. It was a much longer process and I felt bad for them," he added. "They were there for like two years, and I was only there for a couple months. I went to the Goo Goo Dolls concert with Camp Good Days and was with some kids who didn't make it."
MacDonald is a modest, quiet kid, an honor roll student and a three-sport athlete who prefers humility to headlines.
Today, MacDonald is cancer free. And while he'll swim his best on North's two freestyle relays and the 50 free, he's learning at an early age what's really important.
"I still have little problems and stuff, but it's nothing compared to still being sick or even losing your life. It's not bad at all," he said. "It's pretty easy to deal with. It's a real, like an eye-opener, kind of. You have to live everyday and you never really know what's going to happen."