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by Leslie Hill | Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, 9:28 AM
Maryville, Tenn., tucked in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, has a population of just 27,000, but it seemed like every one of its residents rallied around 20-year-old Brently Mancini when he was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue cancer.
Mancini was a football standout and 2008 graduate of Greenback High School who loved to hunt and fish and ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He had a lump in his right quadriceps removed that year, and it was thought to be a hematoma possibly left over from his football days.
Then in 2010 he started having episodes of paleness and tiredness, but brushed them off because he was working two jobs; in construction and at UPS Inc.. But he was also noticing pain in his right leg and the lump was growing again so he scheduled a return doctor’s visit.
An MRI revealed that the lump was probably a tumor, and Mancini was referred to Jennifer Halpern, M.D., assistant professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and an expert in musculoskeletal oncology.
“We performed a biopsy and diagnosed him with epitheliod sarcoma, a rare cancer,” Halpern said. “Unfortunately, further scans showed that the cancer had already spread to his lungs.”
Mancini had a major operation to remove the tumor and reconstruct his leg, and then received radiation and chemotherapy.
“Doctors told us unless he had a pure miracle, he wouldn’t survive, but we weren’t going to take it any way but to have hope,” said Mancini’s mother, Belinda Clayton. “I survived cancer, and knew he just couldn’t give up. He was so young, and we had to have hope.”
Clayton said Mancini had a great sense of humor, and it was on full display during his cancer treatments.
“His high school mascot was the Cherokees and it was a big deal going into football season to have a Mohawk. So he showed up one day for his chemo with a Mohawk,” Clayton said.
“He had to grow up fast, but he was a trouper. He had such a positive attitude, and that’s what touched everybody.”
Clayton worked from home as a bookkeeper, and had to quit her job to shuttle Mancini the three hours on I-40 between Maryville and Nashville for his treatments and appointments. That’s when the small town rallied to support one of its own.
“The whole town went to bat for him,” Clayton said. “My girlfriends and local businesses, churches and school started doing benefits; motorcycle rides, bike washes, kids’ days, bean suppers. I’m still stunned when I think about it. If it hadn’t been for this town, I probably would have lost my house.”
One of Clayton’s friends, Jama Almond, had the idea for a music festival at a local farm belonging to Leroy Huff, and “Boogie on the River” was born. It is held the first weekend in May.
At the 2011 event, Mancini asked his mother and her friends to keep the event going and donate the money to sarcoma research.
“He wanted to be sure we were still fighting after he was gone,” Clayton said. “Sarcoma is so rare and strikes young people, and he wanted there to be more options and hope for them.”
Mancini died on July 22, 2011, eight weeks after he married his longtime girlfriend Callie Orr.
Boogie on the River continued in 2012, raising more than $6,000. Some of the proceeds supported five local families fighting cancer, and Clayton and her girlfriends recently visited Vanderbilt to present more funds. There was $700 in gas cards to help patients who have to travel, $500 for Hope Lodge, a free housing facility for cancer patients, and $1,000 for sarcoma research directed by Ginger Holt, M.D.
“Brently was a fighter, and he fought his cancer with humor and love and hope,” Halpern said. “He recognized that the fight against cancer was not just against the cancer cells, but also against the financial burdens that assault cancer patients. He wanted to help change that reality, by educating and inspiring his community.
“His loving family and community have kept his fight alive with their tremendous efforts to help other cancer patients. His and their story is one that reminds us each day of the power of love and hope and dedication,” Halpern said.
This fall, Mancini’s football jersey will be retired until his younger brother, Johnathen, gets to high school. Johnathen, meanwhile, is writing songs and learning guitar and becoming a regular at Boogie on the River.
“We intend on doing it every year,” Clayton said. “Brently wanted it, and how could I deny that wish? It’s hard work but all worthwhile. People supported me, and now I have to pay it forward.”
Leslie Hill, (615) 322-4747
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