On March 21, 2013 the McMahon family relived one of the worst moments of their lives.
That morning, their 12-year-old son, Connor, woke up with severe pain in his lower back, something he attributed to sleeping on the floor the night before. Unfortunately, it was the day of a big all-star ice hockey game, and Connor, who plays AAA hockey in his hometown, Alpharetta Ga., was set to play goalie.
Determined to power through, Connor got dressed for the match and competed for the first two periods – but the task was a challenge.
“He was having difficulty moving,” Don McMahon, Connor’s dad and a coach for Atlanta Fire Hockey, told FoxNews.com. “If he were to drop down, he couldn’t get back up. That was a challenge for me to watch; I could tell he was definitely in some type of pain.”
"When I was first diagnosed, my first question was, ‘Could I die?’ And you told me I should never give up hope."
- Don McMahon recalling his son Connor's reason to start Connor's Hope
After the second period, Connor skated over to his father and told him he was in too much pain and had “nothing left.” At that point, another goalie was substituted in for Connor, and his mom, Michelle, picked him up and took him to an urgent care facility to have some X-rays done.
But a bad feeling had come over Don. On his way home after the game, Don called Michelle and told her to take him to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite – a hospital familiar to the McMahons. After just an hour and a half at Scottish Rite, the doctor’s had a diagnosis.
Connor’s cancer had returned.
“I was kind of shocked,” Connor told FoxNews.com about hearing the diagnosis. “The doctors were saying last time when I had cancer, there was a very low chance I could get it again, and not many people do, (eight) years later.”
Last February marked eight years since Connor was first diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at the age of 3. After undergoing chemotherapy and other cancer treatments for three years, Connor had been considered “cured.”
But despite the difficult path ahead of them, the family is nothing but optimistic about Connor’s prognosis, a state of mind partly inspired by a campaign led by their son – aptly named “Connor’s Hope.”
Never give up hope
When Connor was 8, and entering third grade just a couple years after he had finished chemotherapy, his parents gave him a brand new Nike backpack for school. A few days into the school year, Connor approached his father with a bizarre request: He wanted 30 more backpacks.
“I asked if he was trying to become the most popular kid in school, and he said, ‘I was thinking about it last night, and I really just think that I should get these backpacks for the kids over at Children’s Hospital,” Don said. “I said, ‘If that’s what you want, then done.’”
To Support Connor and Reece
But Connor wasn’t finished yet. He also wanted to embroider the word “Hope” on every bag.
“He goes, ‘When I was first diagnosed, my first question was, ‘Could I die?’ And you told me I should never give up hope and fight this thing the whole way through. I never did, and look at me now,’” Don recalled.
Feeling nothing but pride for his son, Don agreed – and Connor continued to add more and more items to the bags. Soon each bag contained a free massage for every child’s parents, fun gifts donated from friends and family, and a personal message from Connor, urging the kids to never give up hope on making it through.
Through this effort, “Connor’s Hope” was born.
“I wanted to start ‘Connor’s Hope’ because from being in the hospital the first time, I got bored a lot, and I had nothing to do,” Connor said. “I thought it would be a good idea to not let more kids be bored in the hospital – to bring them stuff to do while they’re there.”
The McMahons would continue to raise money and donate gift bags four times a year to children at the Aflac Cancer Center at Scottish Rite. One of the recipients of these bags was a 9-year-old boy named Reece McPhail, who had been diagnosed with leukemia towards the end of 2011.
Reece, who never particularly enjoyed anything associated with the hospital, was intrigued by the bag he received in December 2012.
“He pulled out the letter Connor had written in there about going through leukemia when he was young,” Jeff McPhail, Reece’s father, told FoxNews.com. “(Connor) talked about playing hockey and all his interests, and my wife was like, ‘We’ve got to meet this kid; he sounds a lot like Reece.’”
A lasting friendship
That night, Reece’s mother Paige got in touch with Don over the phone, and Don offered up an idea: Have Reece come by the ice rink in February to meet Connor.
When the McPhails brought their son to the Alpharetta Family Skate Center, they got much more than they had expected. Don and Connor had gotten Reece his own hockey jersey with his name on the back. Not only that, Reece was invited to play in the team’s scrimmage game that day, in which the team let him score the very first goal of the day.
"It was pretty cool, fun and exciting," Reece told FoxNews.com. "I got to take the first shot and then I sat on the bench." He also added it was his first time playing on a "real" team.
Ever since then, Connor and Reece have remained close friends, often going over to each other’s houses to practice some garage hockey, as well as visiting each other at the hospital. And when Connor got word of his cancer’s return, Reece provided him with the same love and support that Connor had initially showed him.
“It’s kind of the opposite of how it was,” Connor said. “I used to tell him not to give up hope, and now he comes to visit me in the hospital and says the same thing.”
While Connor has given many gifts to others through Connor’s Hope, he has also received his fair share of special items – such as a signed goalie stick from Henrik Lundqvist, Connor’s favorite player from the New York Rangers, and an autographed jersey from Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Meanwhile, Connor continues to spread the message of Connor’s Hope, and his positive attitude may be paying off. Recent results from his bone marrow aspiration revealed that his cancer has gone into remission. But Connor’s battle isn’t over yet, and he will have to make a choice between another round of chemotherapy or a bone marrow transplant.
Even though risks still lie ahead, the McMahons are confident that with Reece and other loved ones by his side, Connor will pull through his treatments just fine. And no matter what, he vows to continue looking on the bright side.
“His attitude is, ‘You can’t focus on the negative, you’ve got to focus on the positives,’ and, ‘How can you make this better for something else?’ Don said. “That’s what makes him so special. He’s not a typical 12-year-old.”