They thought it was just an ear infection that turned into a cyst. But when Billy and Crystal Hunawill took their 16-year-old son A.J. Rovito Jr. to the hospital, it turned into much more.
“We initially went in for what we thought was a cyst removal, which should have been a quick surgery,” Crystal Hunawill said. “But it turned into a very long, lengthy surgery. A few hours later, the doctors came out and told us they removed a tumor and it was very suspicious, so they were sending it off for testing.”
On Aug. 7, the day before his 17th birthday, Rovito was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a type of bone cancer that usually forms in the arms, legs or pelvis. But Rovito’s type is rare as it formed inside his ear canal.
“It was very shocking,” Hunawill said. “We didn’t have any idea of anything like that happening. A.J. handles things by keeping to himself. He doesn’t complain. He says, ‘Alright, let’s get through it.’”
The Richmond Hill High School senior has since undergone aggressive treatment, including 31 radiation treatments, which were completed in January. Rovito also started chemotherapy in August and should have his last treatment in May.
Hunawill said there have been some setbacks, such as seven blood transfusions and two infections.
“They have put us back a little bit; it just stretches it out longer,” she explained. “In May, they will do further body scans and from there, I believe his next scan would be three months from then. We think we’ve gotten it all, and now we’re just doing the cleanup.”
The family of five that has lived in Richmond Hill for the past nine years is grateful for the Bryan County community and cancer awareness events like Relay For Life.
Hunawill said she has always walked in the Relay For Life events because she has lost family members to cancer. But now, the event really hits home, and she definitely plans to be at this year’s event, she said.
“Relay For Life gives Bryan County the opportunity to celebrate the lives of those who have battled cancer, remember loved ones lost and fight back against the disease,” Christy Crowley, who has been involved with the Bryan County Relay for Life for more than 15 years, said.
“Creating a world with less cancer takes a team effort. It takes survivors and caregivers, and regular folks like you and me who all unite at Relay For Life. Our support enables the American Cancer Society to save lives by helping people stay well, by helping people get well, by finding cures and fighting back.”
This year, Crowley is working with her brother, John Crowley, to plan the entertainment for the event. She has had various responsibilities on the committee throughout the years.
The event in J.F. Gregory Park is from 6:30 p.m. to midnight Friday. There will be performances by local musicians, students and artists, as well as competitions, food by local vendors and bounce houses courtesy of CJ’s Inflatables.
The event takes place every year to raise money for the American Cancer Society.
“Some of our friends asked to do a team in honor of A.J. and our family,” said Hunawill, who isn’t sure if her son will be able to attend the event, depending on his blood count levels. “It’s really hard-hitting. There needs to be more awareness, and not just for a certain type (of cancer). There are so many types of cancer that people don’t talk about.”
Because of Rovito’s low blood counts, he becomes susceptible to even the slightest cold. The family has to be very cautious about exposing him to large groups of people, Hunawill said.
In fact, he can no longer attend high school with his peers, where he played the saxophone with the school band. He now does his schooling online while at home.
Even though Rovito can’t attend school, his teachers and classmates, as well as the rest of the community, are still supporting him. According to Hunawill, there have been many fundraisers to help with the family’s medical and other expenses.
“I miss a lot of work and there are a lot of extras that come, like with gas getting to the hospital and everything … there’s a lot,” she said. “A lot of help is needed. I’m thankful we live in such a small area because the news spreads quickly with word of mouth. We have a lot of people that keep us in their thoughts and prayers.”
The Ice Cream Stop and 32 Degrees Frozen Yogurt have held fundraisers for Rovito and his family. And another local business, Scorpio Ink, sells T-shirts in his honor.
The high school held a fundraiser where students got to throw a pie in a teacher’s face, and Flashback is getting ready to have a golf tournament.
“We’re grateful and appreciative of the community support,” Hunawill said. “We want to thank everybody. A.J’s done very well. We try to have a positive attitude. We have to get through this, and there’s no looking back.”
To stay up-to-date on Rovito’s progress, visit the Facebook page, “Prayers for AJ.”