The fate of the Houston Dynamo U-12 boys soccer team rested squarely on the foot of 12-year-old Alex Erwin.
If he converted a penalty kick, his Valrico team would advance in the Region C Cup, the Florida Youth Soccer Association's playoffs. Alex scored that fateful February day in Naples, but the goal was disallowed. After a formal protest was granted, Erwin had to repeat the play weeks later in Tampa.
Alex, who hadn't missed a PK all year, scored — again — and the Dynamo (10-3-1) advanced to a regional runner-up finish to the Hernando Heat this past season.
"He knew he was going to step up to take the PK," said his dad and assistant coach, Tom Erwin, 44. "He had a lot of weight placed on his shoulders."
The weight of playing soccer while your mother battles cancer proved to be heavier, but Alex and his teammates drew inspiration from Jen Erwin's courage.
Jen Erwin's fate rests squarely in the hands of her radiologists, oncologists and God. Since initially being diagnosed with Stage 2 melanoma (skin cancer) in 2006, she has endured 16 surgeries for multiple types of cancer, including a rare form of colon cancer that she says stems from a genetic abnormality.
"I have a cancer that has never, ever been seen in the world," said Jen, 43, a member of First United Methodist Church in Brandon.
Jen, a former CPA and soccer mom to three — including daughters Abby, 13, and Ashley, 7 — recently returned to chemotherapy treatment. Despite having insurance that costs $500 a month, her monthly bill for the 10 types of medication she takes exceeds $3,000. A fundraiser is scheduled for Jen on Saturday at the Boys and Girls Club of Brandon from 3 to 8 p.m. featuring an indoor nine-hole miniature golf course, bounce house and barbecue for $20.
In addition to her skin cancer, Jen discovered a lump in her breast in 2009 that led to a rare diagnosis of three types of Stage 3 breast cancer. She had a double mastectomy.
She also opted for a hysterectomy to prevent ovarian or uterine cancer. Jen said her left arm suffered lymphedema, a painful swelling that she battles daily.
It's her Stage 4 colon cancer that is now the main focus of Jen's doctors. She describes her large tumor, which contains an abnormality she may have been born with because it typically shows up in other organs, never in the colon, which is why her case is being documented for a medical journal study.
Jen had been a patient at Florida Cancer Specialists in Brandon as well as Moffitt Cancer Center, whom she says "gave me no hope" and "lovingly referred to me as a little freak of nature" before ultimately suggesting a palliative care program.
That's when Jen's mother-in-law, Sally Erwin, went on a three-day research mission and found two doctors who were willing to try a more targeted option. One was in Texas, the other at UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital in Gainesville, where she has been under the care of Dr. Paul Okunieff and a group of 20 to 30 specialists including Dr. Karen Daily since last year.
The Shands team introduced a less toxic approach to treating the colon cancer with targeted radiation and chemotherapy pills that can be taken at home in two-week increments for as long as needed. It improves her quality of life.
"She has an unusual variance and an uncommon pathology," said Daily, who has seen this type of cancer mentioned only a few times in medical journals. "It's really unique because she's very young. It's an aggressive kind of cancer. It's quite uncommon."
Last December, Jen completed a full body scan that didn't detect any cancer. But in the middle of Alex's soccer playoff run this March, a follow-up scan revealed the colon cancer not only had returned, but had spread to her liver and lungs.
The Houston Dynamo team donned pink socks for a couple games in a display of support for Jen, who attended as many games as possible despite her frail 5-foot-7 frame that dropped to 100 pounds at one point during treatments.
She also made the trip to ESPN's Wide World of Sports to watch the Dynamo end their season at the Disney Memorial Day Shootout with two draws in three games, including one against the runner- up squad from Pinecrest Premier.
Jen's Dynamo soccer family wore shirts this season to support her "Defy All Odds" crusade.
Coach Mark Ehringer said it was a rallying point for his team.
"I think that just was outstanding for them to push forward," he said.
Jen says she will take the pain if it means being able to see her children graduate and get married. She also wants to spread the word that women should get mammograms before the typical age of 40 and people should opt for colonoscopies prior to age 50 because she found cancer in both areas at a younger age.
"I don't carry normal genes," Jen said. "It freaks me out, but I want to help people. I pray to God to please use me, but don't take me now. I'm okay with it all if it's for a purpose."
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]