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How a Tampa family beat cancer between back-to-back Lightning Stanley Cups

Becca Sloan, 20, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during the 2020 final but enjoyed the Lightning’s 2021 victory in remission.
Becca Sloan, left, and her mom, Melisa Capri, stand outside Amalie Arena before the Lightning took on the Islanders in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup semifinals June 21.
Becca Sloan, left, and her mom, Melisa Capri, stand outside Amalie Arena before the Lightning took on the Islanders in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup semifinals June 21. [ Photo courtesy of Becca Sloan ]
Published Jul. 9

Melisa Capri has been a Lightning season-ticket holder since 2015. But when the team won the Stanley Cup last year, she didn’t care.

“Don’t even say the word ‘Lightning’ to me,” Capri said about the 2020 Cup final.

Because what’s 34½ pounds of metal worth when your daughter has just been diagnosed with cancer in the middle of a pandemic?

Becca Sloan, 20, found out she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, during last year’s Cup final. She spent almost the entire six-game series at Tampa General Hospital, Capri said. Together they watched the Lightning beat the Stars in Edmonton from home, but hockey was the last thing on their minds.

“As much as we love hockey, and we’re big Lightning supporters and all that,” said Capri, who is from Tampa and works as a data integration specialist for Coastal Cloud, “you can imagine, with her getting diagnosed with cancer, I wasn’t really focused on much else.

“We wanted to be able to enjoy it when her life wasn’t at stake.”

They finally could Wednesday night. After seven months and several rounds of chemotherapy, Sloan was declared in remission two months ago. Then the Lightning won their second straight Stanley Cup championship, this time on home ice.

“It was almost like the Lightning did it again just for us,” Capri said.

In September, Sloan was staying with her father, Peter Shatner, in Clearwater and one day was walking around the house while on the phone with a friend. She stopped at a mirror and noticed a large lump on the left side of her neck near her collarbone. It felt hard, as cancerous masses do. She immediately panicked.

“I started bawling my eyes out,” Sloan said.

She went to an urgent care facility across the street. Their guess: mononucleosis (which, Sloan said, begrudgingly, is always doctors’ first guess). But she told her mom something was wrong and she needed to go to an emergency room. After spending a week at Tampa General largely alone because of coronavirus restrictions, doctors confirmed what Sloan knew.

“They told me that lymph nodes are the size of peas, and they told me that they took out four and it was the size of a golf ball,” she said of the biopsy. “I felt like I was going to die tomorrow.”

While some use sports as a refuge during tough times, Capri didn’t give hockey much thought during her daughter’s treatment. With the 2020 final ending in September and the 2021 season starting in January, there was no hockey for the hardest months of Sloan’s journey. They had bigger things to worry about, such as chemo killing her immune system while the coronavirus lurked around every corner.

“I kept telling Rebecca, ‘Healthy 20-year-old girls do not die from Hodgkin’s lymphoma,’ " Capri said. The specific type of cancer is considered one of the most treatable, with a five-year survival rate of 90 percent. Sloan said that number helped her make it through treatment. But while the statistics seemed in her favor, that didn’t make her fear of fatality unfounded.

“I was more afraid of COVID than I was of the cancer,” Capri said. “(Sloan) was completely immunocompromised. And there was another patient at Moffitt (Cancer Center), a girl who was 25 years old who got COVID while she was completely immunocompromised, and she died.”

So Capri did everything she could to keep her daughter safe. She always wore a mask and washed her hands. She sent Sloan to live with her dad while she housed another daughter who was pregnant. Since Capri stayed with Sloan as long as she was permitted for every chemo treatment, both had to be equally cautious.

While the coronavirus made fighting off cancer even more terrifying than it normally would have been, Capri has trouble deciding whether Sloan’s diagnosis came at the perfect time or one of the worst imaginable.

“In some ways, maybe it was better because it wasn’t just her locked down, it was the whole world locked down,” Capri said. “If it hadn’t been for COVID, the rest of the world would’ve been out having a good time and not caring about germs. So, I don’t know if it was a blessing or a curse that COVID was going on at the time.

“At least she didn’t get diagnosed back at the beginning of COVID six months earlier, when you couldn’t find masks or you couldn’t find hand sanitizer.”

Becca Sloan, left, and boyfriend Chase Hopkins pose for a picture during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Becca Sloan, left, and boyfriend Chase Hopkins pose for a picture during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup semifinals. [ Photo courtesy of Becca Sloan ]

Capri and Sloan finally could start getting vaccinated in March and April. Capri received both doses in time for the Lightning’s annual “Hockey Fights Cancer” game April 20, fittingly the first one she attended in person since the league shut down because of the virus in March 2020.

She and her partner, Dale Langefels, donned black and purple Lightning gear customized to read “Team Becca.” Purple is used for the NHL’s charitable initiative because the color generally is used to represent all cancers. But it also is the color of the Hodgkin’s lymphoma awareness ribbon.

Sloan’s first game back was the Islanders’ 8-0 victory over the Islanders in Game 5 of the league semifinals.

While the rest of the hockey world talked about deja vu after the Lightning’s latest Stanley Cup win, Sloan felt like another successful championship run meant that she was getting a do-over.

“I was diagnosed two days before they won the Stanley Cup (in 2020), and I was afraid for my life,” she said. “This time around, this Stanley Cup, I’m still here.”

Contact Payton Titus at ptitus@tampabay.com. Follow @petitus25.

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