Some people around the ballpark might be aware of Steve Navaroli and his recent diagnosis and treatment for throat cancer. Navaroli, or Navs as he’s called around the office, jokes with me that every year he expects to cover more Revs game, but invariably ends up covering one game early in the year and at least one playoff game at the end of the year. In between, he can usually be found sitting in the stands with his children.
Navs has been around the team since its first season. He covered that marathon game in the first season that seemed to last all night, and mercifully ended with a Revs catcher in the outfield and a pitcher scoring the winning run. He sounded disappointed he wouldn’t have the opportunity to cover a playoff game this year. But he needed to take time off work to concentrate on his recovery.
I wrote a story for the Sunday News on two York Suburban swimmers’ efforts to raise money for Navs’ cancer treatment, and I figured this might be a good time to update everyone on how he’s doing. Since we didn’t have room in the print edition for a thorough update on Navs, here it is:
Navaroli’s work cubicle remains empty.
Oh, the clutter remains.
The Steve Yzerman figurine, Pete Rose baseball card, road atlas and dictionary are all in place. But in the midst of all that clutter and about a dozen pictures of his children — Alexis, 6, and Andrew, 10 — one piece of paper hammers home how his life has been turned upside down.
Before he took medical leave from work in September, he taped a hand-scrawled note to his monitor. It reads: “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” They are the words spoken by former college basketball coach Jim Valvano from a speech he gave in March 1993, weeks before he died from the cancer ravaging his body. Navaroli knew he was in for a fight.
During his last days in the office, he expressed disbelief that he would be unable and unwilling to eat during the late stages of chemotherapy and radiation. But that time has come. He hasn’t been able to swallow any food for about a month.
“My throat just shut down,” Navaroli said. “I can’t even swallow saliva.”
He has struggled to keep down formula he inserts in his feeding tube. Between coughs, in a voice not his own, Navaroli explained how difficult the last month of his treatment has been. Racked by nausea and a tumor located in his throat that triggers his gag reflex, he has lost 40 pounds.
“In the last four weeks I’ve barfed more than in all my other 50 years combined,” Navaroli said. “I’ve been kneeling down at the toilet … and that’s been my absolute lowest.”
Still, the same free-spirited guy known as “Navs” to friends, somehow finds a way to joke about his current state.
“I now know why people die from this,” he joked.
Cancer didn’t seem a possibility earlier this year. Navaroli, 50, planned to run a 5K during a family trip to New York. Looking back, he realizes he experienced small signs, even though they seemed like nothing at the time.
On early-morning drives home after midnight work deadlines, he sang along with the radio. But he noticed that his voice quivered or gave out. He joked later, well, maybe he’s just part of being an “old man.”
More unusual stuff kept happening.
He started to lose his voice with more regularity. Then, during the summer, he developed swollen lymph nodes along his jaw line. And antibiotics didn’t cure his sore throat. He lost weight without trying.
Sent for test after test, he found himself sitting in an examination room waiting for yet another test when he looked at the paperwork sitting in the room. Using his cell phone, he googled one of the words on the sheet of paper. That’s when he learned the name of the throat cancer doctors would soon tell him about during his diagnosis.
Surgery was a last resort. Doctors recommended chemotherapy and radiation.
By Aug. 20, doctors at Johns Hopkins had surgically moved his salivary gland so it wouldn’t be damaged by upcoming radiation treatments. The procedure allowed him to preserve the ability to continue creating saliva, even after more than 30 radiation treatments.
Doctors also inserted a feeding tube. Lifting up his shirt to show off the tube and brown bandage wrapped around his body, he explained how he still planned to take a family vacation to Rehoboth Beach, Del., before his treatment started. It could have been his last vacation.
“That could be an absolute fact,” Navaroli said, “but I never let that thought enter my mind.”
The 33 scheduled radiation and seven chemotherapy treatments are almost complete. One week of treatments, including his final trip for chemo on Wednesday remain.
“That’s a positive; that’s exciting,” Navaroli said.
He has a goal of eating soft foods by Thanksgiving; he would like to return to eating all foods by Christmas or New Year’s.
And doctors have told him those are all realistic goals.
York Suburban juniors Emily Schmittle and Will Massey have teamed up to create “Navaroli Nation” T-shirts that have been sold at Suburban sporting events and at a Navaroli Nation Facebook page, with all profits earmarked for Navaroli.
West York swimming plans to raise funds through its annual alumni meet for Navaroli. Schmittle and Massey have been invited to sell shirts at the West York alumni meet.
“If we have the time, we plan on going anywhere where we are invited,” Schmittle said.
Rutgers freshman swimmer and Red Lion graduate Morgan Pfaff started an “I Swim For Steve” Facebook page. Spring Grove head coach Russ Stoner said his team will raise funds for the Navaroli family. And the York Ice Hockey Club, where Navaroli has served as a volunteer assistant for his son’s York Devils team, has an event planned for Navaroli and his family for Nov. 30 at the York City Ice Arena.
“I don’t know if I really deserve this,” Navaroli said, coughing between words. “I’m thinking, am I this special? No way.”
All of this work by Schmittle came about because of what she has already experienced. She knows about cancer. She has seen how it hurts. One of her swim coaches at the West Shore YMCA, Kim Jones, had been diagnosed with breast cancer about two years ago. Students wore “Swim for Kim” shirts. Jones died about a year ago, but not before she witnessed what type of impact she made on her community.
“I was really close to her,” Schmittle said. “She was almost like a second mom to me. I saw how much of an effect (the shirts) had on her and how her mood lifted just from seeing that support.”
Schmittle wants to sell more shirts, but she also envisions a special day. She wants to see swimmers and fans at the YAIAA swimming championships standing together, wearing yellow “Navaroli Nation” shirts.
“He will see how much support he has,” Schmittle said.
Prepared to enter his final week of radiation and chemo, Navaroli admits part of Schmittle’s goal has already been realized.
“It’s so much more than just putting a name on a shirt,” Navaroli said. “You can’t imagine the strength I get from them.”