By BRIAN CUNNIFF
In the spring of 2020, Braden Brojokowski was like many other high school athletes, doing his best to stay active while the world was essentially shut down at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With his freshman lacrosse season canceled, the Lower Cape May Regional High School student athlete did what he could to stay in shape while following workout plans sent by his coaches.
But the then 15-year-old began experiencing increasing discomfort after each of his workouts. Lower back soreness one day. Hip pain on another day. Knee issues on another.
At first, Brojakowski and his family chalked it up to the combination of his muscles and joints responding to hard workouts along with growing pains that many boys that age endure.
That July, Brojakowski mentioned his physical issues to his doctor during what he thought was a routine well visit. The doctor sent him for X-rays.
The news was not good.
“Two weeks later, we were at CHOP (Children’s Hospital Of Philadelphia) for treatment,” Brojakowski’s mother, Amanda, said.
The diagnosis was osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer most typically found in children, teens and young adults, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Osteosarcoma is found in only about 400 people in the United States each year, and most often occurs during the growth spurt of the teen years.
Brojokowski’s cancer surfaced in the top of his left femur, around the ball joint connecting into the hip socket.
So instead of preparing for his sophomore soccer season – Brojakowski was a varsity player for the Caper Tigers as a freshman – he instead was facing a fight for his life.
His early treatments consisted of regular trips to CHOP for 10 weeks of chemotherapy that began in August 2020. Then it was major surgery that November that saw surgeons remove six inches of the top of his femur, replacing the removed bone with a metal plate.
Then it was more chemotherapy after surgery, followed by rigorous physical therapy.
In addition to his sophomore soccer season, Brojakowski was also sidelined for his sophomore lacrosse season and his junior soccer season. But as he got stronger through his various rehab exercises, the chances of a return to the playing field kept getting stronger.
“There was no way I wasn’t coming back,” he said.
Finally, just a few weeks prior to the start of this spring’s lacrosse season, Brojakowski was cleared by his doctors to play.
“He was determined this was going to happen,” Amanda said. “It was clear in his mind. There was no talking him out of it.”
Not only did Brojakowski return, but he also became an integral part of the team again. He posted six goals and five assists as a reserve attack player and midfielder for a Caper Tiger team that finished a solid 11-5 and placed second in the Cape-Atlantic National Conference standings this spring. And he did so while essentially retraining his body on how to run, cut and remain balanced. His gait featured a bit of a limp, especially at the beginning of the season, but improved immensely as the season wore on.
His first real action came in the team’s first scrimmage against Barnegat in late March.
“It felt great just being able to go out for warmups with my teammates,” Braden said. “Then to get on the field at the end of the game was a great experience.”
Brojakowski scored his first goal in a game that officially did not count. After referees failed to show for a game against Millville, the team’s coaches decided to treat it as a scrimmage. Brojakowski produced one of the highlights of the school’s athletic year by flicking a shot into the goal.
Technically, that goal didn’t count. But he finally officially made the scoresheet shortly thereafter, posting two goals and two assists in a 16-4 win over Oakcrest on April 8.
“After everything I’d been through, it felt great to score,” Braden said. “It was a massive sigh of relief.”
There is risk for Brojakowski. Playing contact sports coming off such a major surgery and everything else associated with fighting off the osteosarcoma puts him in some slightly increased danger of getting injured.
But he wants to press forward and play.
He needs to press forward and play.
“There are things he can and can’t do,” Amanda said. “He has to weigh the circumstances. He’s getting to the age where he has to make his own decisions. He’s more aware of how his body feels than anyone else.”
The whole ordeal has changed the Brojakowski family, which also includes father, Tom, and older sister, Eden, a former standout athlete at Lower Cape May who plans to play her junior field hockey season at Ramapo College in the fall.
Living in the moment is at the top of the list.
“With the kids both being into sports, we used to plan a lot of things with our schedules,” Amanda said. “Now it’s literally day by day. We used to be very regimented, worrying about the upcoming practices and games and planning everything we were doing. But dealing with this made us change our focus to day by day.”
Brojakowski and his family have not fought cancer alone. Support has come in from those inside and outside the Lower Cape May and Lower Township communities. Local police departments, local churches and the Cape Express Soccer Club, among others, have held fundraisers. The boys soccer teams from Ocean City and Millville each exhibited their support in games against Lower Cape May.
“This community really helps when help is needed,” Amanda said.
Then there’s the everyday support.
“My friends, my family, teachers, classmates, coaches – they’re always supporting me and telling me to never give up,” Braden said. “All my teammates on the lacrosse side, all my teammates on the soccer side, they’ve helped me through it all. They’re always there for me, they’re always giving me their support and they’re always telling me to keep pushing every day. They all had a major impact on how I was able to come back.”
Brojakowski had the potential to become one of the next great athletes at Lower Cape May when he entered as a freshman. A fierce battle with cancer derailed that. But Brojakowski is now writing a different kind of success story now that he’s returned to the field.
“As soon as he was allowed, right away he was in the weight room,” said Cole Blackley, Brojakowski’s lacrosse coach at Lower. “He wanted to get himself ready to play and he was trying his best every day. The hard work is what got him to this point.
“He’s a very good athlete, an amazing player, and you hate to see something like that happen. It’s disappointing for him. But now we’re just glad he’s here.”
Said Amanda: “He’s become pretty good at accepting where he is in his life. Maybe it’s not where he could have been. But we’re all taking each day as it comes.
“The staff at Lower Cape May has been wonderful the way they’ve all been working with him. The coaches, the athletic trainer – they’ve been helping him get through some of the struggles. It hasn’t been easy. They’ve all been amazing with him.”
Brojakowski, a striker in soccer, plans a return to that sport as well this fall for what will be his final high school season. He’s hoping to experience the same feeling he got when scoring his first lacrosse goal if he’s fortunate enough to score in a soccer game.
“It’ll probably be the same feeling. Not being able to play soccer for so long, it’s going to be very exciting to be back out there. Scoring that first goal will be big for me. I know there will be a lot of emotion,” he said.
Brojakowski has learned a lot through his journey from multi-sport athlete to worried cancer patient to determined cancer survivor back to multi-sport athlete.
“After what I’ve gone through, it’s made a big impact on the physical and mental side for me,” he said. “Not only wanting to get stronger, but also to make smarter choices and be able to think more about what’s the next step, what I’m going through, what I have to do to get where I want and setting goals for myself.”
Brojakowski is now in position to never take a game, a practice or even a day for granted.
“Each game this year and each practice this year, I worked as hard as I could,” he said. “Being able to be out there, I just loved it so much. I just wanted to get better and better every day.”
That fight and that attitude has turned Brojakowski into an inspiration for others.
“A lot of people have told me I’m someone to look up to,” he said. “If there’s other kids out there having a hard time going through what they’re going through, maybe they can see what I went through and that I’ve still had success and it helps them.”
Brojakowski has done the physical work to return to as normal of a life as possible. The mental side will almost always be a work in progress after such a life-rattling experience with a battle with cancer, particularly for someone so young.
But, as Brojakowski said, “I do feel like I’m past it. I’m definitely ready to go.”