By MADDY VITALE
Ocean City Intermediate School math teacher Frank LaSasso is also an assistant coach for Ocean City High School’s varsity baseball and football teams.
He is used to guiding students and athletes through adversity, teaching them skills to deal with challenges in the classroom and on the athletic field.
No matter how hard or difficult a problem, there is a way to get through it, learn from it, succeed, get that winning grade, win that game or learn from failure, he teaches students and athletes.
In his personal life, LaSasso, 35, of Hammonton, is using those very skills he imparts on others to battle something much scarier than anything he and his wife, Tiffany, have had to deal with in their family.
On Dec. 7, 2020, their son, Frankie, 7, was diagnosed with cancer. The official name for what Frankie has is T-Cell Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He receives weekly chemotherapy treatments and has done so since his diagnosis.
“When you deal with a situation of this magnitude, especially in the first month, it is extremely overwhelming until you get into a routine,” LaSasso said in an interview Thursday.
He continued, “If you told me a year ago that this would happen, my initial reaction would have been that there is no way either one of us could mentally handle that,” he said of he and his wife, Tiffany.
But when it actually happened, they went into survival mode, to be strong for each other and their son, and younger son, 6-year-old Gino.
“There really isn’t a whole lot of time to feel sorry for ourselves, and like on any team, feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t solve any problems anyway,” he said.
Frankie’s maternal grandfather, Tim Jones, set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to help the family with expenses. So far, nearly half of the $10,000 goal has been raised.
To donate go to the GoFundMe Page by clicking here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/cwr4sm-fight-like-frankie?utm_campaign=p_cp_url&utm_medium=os&utm_source=customer
The family is coping.
“You are either going to crumble or you are going to stand up and look adversity in the face. And we both chose the latter,” LaSasso noted.
And it seems that young Frankie has some of that toughness, strength and resiliency that his father and his grandfather have.
“He is so tough. He never complains,” his dad said.
What started as a persistent cough in October, ended in three negative COVID-19 tests, continued trips to the doctors and then finally, the diagnosis that Frankie needed chemotherapy right away.
“When we go to CHOP (Children’s Hospital Of Philadelphia) it is so eye-opening to see how many kids are there, and how many kids are there for a very long time,” LaSasso said. “Childhood cancer is not uncommon. It is something you can get through, but not everyone gets through.”
And the speed and swiftness of their son’s illness was alarming, he said.
Their little boy went from being active in sports, including playing tackle football for the Hammonton Hawks and Little League baseball, to being very lethargic.
“He was not his normal active self. Once we moved past the cough and lethargy, his appetite decreased. We waited for six days for bloodwork to come back,” LaSasso explained.
“Our thought was that it was anemia or mono,” he noted. “When the diagnosis came they immediately transferred him to a room at CHOP.”
There are times when Frankie undergoes chemo for five days in a row.
And Frankie has months of treatment ahead of him.
The family travels to the CHOP clinic in Voorhees for his treatments, which will continue through mid-August. From mid-August through April of 2023 he will receive monthly chemo, called maintenance.
“He has two years left of chemo. At the end of the summer it will become monthly rather than weekly,” LaSasso noted.
Frankie returned to school this week at the Hammonton Early Childhood Education Center, where he is in the first grade.
His family wants him to have as normal a life as possible during a time when life seems anything but normal.
“It is important for his mental state that he stays active,” LaSasso said. “He just goes through every day doing what he can.”
Ocean City’s Red Raiders football team put together an online fundraiser for Frankie in the winter with the theme: “Fight Like Frankie.” Those words were emblazoned on the shirts along with Frankie’s number 4. On the back of the shirts it read “#LaSasso Strong.”
More than 600 shirts were sold, with the proceeds going to the family.
“We have such gratitude for the Ocean City community. We don’t live here, but the amount of support we have gotten has been amazing,” LaSasso said. “When you coach, you connect with a lot of families. The community has always treated our family as their own and it is very humbling.”
LaSasso also addressed the fundraiser for Frankie.
“I am not a person who wants a handout. My father-in-law says people want to help. And we are so grateful to the generous people who want to help us. When people donate for him, it allows us to do some things for him we may not have done under a normal budget.”
Funds raised already have gone toward buying gas to get back and forth for treatment, meals on treatment days and getting the house disinfected weekly.
And the hope is that when the cancer treatments are all over, and Frankie will once again be well, the family of four will be able to take a vacation together, away from the past few years of chemo treatments, away from the cancer diagnosis and onto health and happiness once again.
The family has not gone on vacation together since July 2019 and won’t be able to until Frankie is done with his treatments in August of 2023.
“That will be his 10th birthday,” LaSasso said. “When he completes chemo, it will be a milestone. We are close to getting through the hardest part. This won’t go away anytime soon, even after chemo ends. But we live day to day. We appreciate every day and we look to Frankie. He is doing great. He is super-tough. He is our inspiration.”