Cancer at bay, graduate looks to his next task

Published August 13, 2006

Five years ago, Dan DiCicco's path seemed uncertain.

Just a few days into his senior year at Dixie Hollins High School in August 2001, DiCicco was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. The childhood cancer that attacks the immune system forced the 17-year-old lineman to miss all but two foot ball games that year.

In April 2002, DiCicco underwent major surgery to remove the tumor that was growing around his trachea. The operation left DiCicco with partial paralysis of his vocal cords and he lost 50 pounds after one month of treatment. But DiCicco vowed that he would not let the disease rule his life.

"I took the attitude of 'I have it, I'm going to do whatever I want and live a normal life.' (You can't) worry about it. It's either going to kill you or you're going to live through it. I didn't worry about it. I kept my mind off it," DiCicco said.

Today, DiCicco is a college graduate with a girlfriend and serious plans for his future. Saturday, he became one of 168 students to graduate with bachelor's degrees from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. DiCicco, 22, will attend the criminal justice academy at Manatee Technical Institute this fall and hopes to someday pursue a law degree.

"I'm just excited to get my diploma. I mean, I knew I was going to get a degree, no matter what. Eventually, I'm going to graduate with a (juris doctorate) degree. It's just a goal that I'm going to have to meet," DiCicco said.

Dan has always been self-motivated, said his mom, Cheryl DiCicco. "He always tried his best at everything. He was very motivated to be successful. Through it all, he never gave in to fatigue or the illness. He never said 'Why me?' Never once did he complain about it," she said.

Pam Morse, teacher with the Pinellas County schools' hospital homebound program, went to DiCicco's home - and sometimes the hospital - to keep him up on his schoolwork. "More than anything else, the thing that impressed me so much was his courage. It didn't matter what happened, he just did not let it get him down." Morse said.

Morse recounted the story of one particular day she went to DiCicco's home for his ecology lesson. A huge stack of mail lay on the dining room table - letters of inquiry from colleges interested in recruiting the linebacker. "He said to me, 'Something else will come along,' " Morse said. "We learn so much more from our kids than they learn from us about how to live well," Morse said.

DiCicco didn't get to play college football, but he didn't give the sport up entirely. He spent a season as a line coach for the Dixie Hollins junior varsity team and played a few semi-professional games for the Florida Tropics, a now-defunct junior college-level club football team.

On the eve of his graduation, DiCicco said he was excited about getting his criminology degree - ready to move on to the next chapter of his life. As he nears five years of cancer-free living, DiCicco said he doesn't think about the possibility of recurrence. "I'm too busy living life to worry about it," he said.