Cancer Survivor Tommy Cleary Gives Back Through Relay for Life Tommy Cleary has been cancer-free for six years, and served as the co-president of BC’s chapter of Relay for Life during his junior year.

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he 14-year-old woke up with a biting pain in his lower-left abdomen, having no idea how the ache began. All Tommy Cleary, CSOM ’20, knew for certain was that he had to get out of bed to play a baseball game for his travel team later that Sunday.

His ailment nagged at him throughout the day and failed to subside by the time he was warming up for the contest. Still, Cleary put his head down and tried his best to play through the pain.

“I figured it was gas or something like that,” Cleary recalled with a grin. “I don’t know, it was a cramp or something, maybe.”

It wasn’t until he had to round third base and sprint home on a shot up the gap between second and short that the pain became too much to bear: He bowed out of the game and headed home, where he discovered he was running a high fever. While a high fever might typically warrant a routine check-up at the pediatrician’s, the office was closed on Sundays, which prompted Cleary’s parents to take him to the emergency room instead.

At Riverview Medical Center in his hometown of Red Bank, N.J., Cleary learned through a blood test that he had an elevated number of white blood cells in his bloodstream—a sign of leukemia. The staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick confirmed the doctors’ suspicions, diagnosing Cleary with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the myeloid line of blood cells.

“Usually it’s a family member that donates [bone marrow], but none of my relatives matched. So they had to go to the bone marrow registry … so I got [the bone marrow] from a random stranger who has never reached out—kind of a ‘my silent angel’ type of thing.” Tommy Cleary

Cleary was all but ready to finish out eighth grade strong, but the diagnosis completely derailed his plans—given the schedule he would have to follow for chemotherapy treatments, continuing the school year as planned was impossible. So Cleary, his family, and the school worked out a revised course load for him to ensure that he wouldn’t lose the work he had already done—a process that was a little easier than Cleary had expected.

“Luckily, I was a good enough student that they weren’t worried that I couldn’t graduate eighth grade,” Cleary said with a laugh.

From his diagnosis in April of 2012 to the following October, Cleary underwent treatment for his leukemia, which involved spending five to seven weeks at a time in the hospital where he would receive chemotherapy. His white blood cell counts would be, as he put it, “quashed down to nothing,” after which he’d spend a week in isolation before going out into the world in order to rebuild a healthy immune system.

Unfortunately, even after he had been declared cancer-free that October, the doctors discovered at a checkup two months later that the cancer had returned. He endured another few rounds of chemo in early 2013, which all culminated in a bone marrow transplant on April 10, 2013.

“Usually it’s a family member that donates, but none of my relatives matched,” said Cleary. “So they had to go to the bone marrow registry … so I got [the bone marrow] from a random stranger who has never reached out—kind of a ‘my silent angel’ type of thing.”

Almost a full year passed before Cleary returned to school for his freshman year at Red Bank Catholic High School (“RBC, baby”). Though he was cancer-free in the months following his transplant, he had to spend months rebuilding his essentially new immune system—his immune system was destroyed by the chemo he had previously endured. He stayed on top of his studies and received tutoring services through cooperation between his schools and, notably, the staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital—whom Cleary calls his “angels.”

In March of 2014 Cleary returned to school with little issue—he had kept up with the curriculum while he was still in the hospital, and many of the friends he had made before and during middle school were by his side in high school. One thing he had lost, though, were his baseball chops—Cleary discovered that he was a bit rusty after a few years off the diamond.

“What I didn’t realize when I was good at baseball is that, well, baseball’s not really fun if you’re not good,” Cleary said. “Like, I sucked at soccer. But I liked doing it—you run around and kick a ball, it’s fun. But baseball’s not playful, it’s almost serious.”

When it came time to look at colleges, Cleary was looking for obvious signs of a good school— good academics, athletic teams, a good environment—but he didn’t necessarily want to make his final decision on that front. He was unsure about his prospects until he was accepted to Boston College.

“I came to the Admitted Eagle Day or whatever they got,” said Cleary. “And they sold me. I love the atmosphere, I love the academics … I love the spirit, the Jesuit vibe I can dig, I liked it.”

He had no preconception of what BC had to offer, but he still fell in love with the school. He even swears up and down that he doesn’t have a “BC family.” It was true when he was first accepted, but he can’t make the claim anymore—this coming fall, he will have two sisters at BC—a rising junior, Lauren, and an incoming freshman, Anna.

“He finds things that are really meaningful to him and that he likes doing and really tries to focus on them. He’s not the kind of guy who always wants to go crazy partying, he's really into fostering good relationships.” Will Farley, CSOM '20

The Jesuit tradition, and the overall experience of a Catholic education, were awfully familiar to Cleary, as he had come from a Catholic high school. A learning curve for some, Cleary didn’t struggle with that aspect of the transition to BC. One thing he found challenging, however, was making a new group of friends—after all, he had been with some of his friends from first grade to high school graduation.

Looking beyond the bubble of the fourth floor of Fitzpatrick, where he said he had two great roommates, Cleary engaged in the traditional mulling-about at the fall Student Involvement Fair, where he stumbled upon BC’s Relay for Life, a fundraising event and program for the American Cancer Society. Cleary had been to a few events like it throughout high school, but he never had the chance to participate in orchestrating the event behind the scenes—the BC chapter presented him with the opportunity. With that, he dove right in—he served on the e-board as a sophomore and was co-president of the program his junior year. He’ll be president again next year, but he’s aware of the workload ahead of him this time.

“I spend more time on it than I do my schoolwork,” Cleary said. “Probably not good.”

The time commitment is certainly no joke—and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by one of his roommates and closest friends, Will Farley, CSOM ’20.

“It’s a huge part of his life,” Farley said. “Like, in the weeks leading up to the event this year, he worked some crazy hours to coordinate everything. I heard him on the phone constantly fundraising … and he really cares about the event.”

In addition to his presidential duties to fundraise, manage the day-to-day operations of the club itself, and coordinate the annual Relay for Life event, Cleary couldn’t rest on his oars, says Farley. According to Farley, Cleary was active in every shared group chat to coordinate his friends’ attendance at the event, helped carry out the event as it was happening, and, most importantly, enjoyed every second of it. Cleary’s commitment to an important cause like Relay for Life comes as no surprise to Farley, though.

“I do Relay because I know what it’s been like. I feel like I owe it to that world of people. We’re trying to save lives.” Tommy Cleary

Farley said that he shares a lot in common with Cleary, from their love of cinema to Cleary’s impressive baseball knowledge—Farley claimed that he can name any World Series matchup and Cleary can identify all of the Hall of Famers on either side—but he finds his commitment to causes like Relay for Life one of his most admirable traits.  

“He finds things that are really meaningful to him and that he likes doing and really tries to focus on them,” Farley said. “He’s not the kind of guy who always wants to go crazy partying, he’s really into fostering good relationships.”

It’s sometimes a clichéd mantra heard in passing, but it’s a sentiment often said in earnest: that a student is “not sure what they’ll do yet” once they leave school. Cleary claims its the same for himself, but he seems to have an idea as to what he wants to do after BC: He sees himself going into the nonprofit field, looking to achieve the same mission that he took on when he joined Relay for Life—not necessarily the business-oriented path that one might expect when seeing his enrollment in the Carroll School of Management.

“I’m not necessarily interested in building financial models and things like that,” he said. “I’m interested in helping people, you know?”

That desire to support others battling cancer mirrors the same support system that he appreciated so much when he was battling sickness himself. He said that people he didn’t know would approach him with messages of support for the battle that he was fighting—support that meant the world to him as he was finding the courage to fight leukemia as a young teen.

“I do Relay because I know what it’s been like,” Cleary said. “I feel like I owe it to that world of people. We’re trying to save lives.”

Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Editor

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