Abby Fuller will not be intimidated.

Ten years into her field hockey career, the senior Oak Hill High School keeper has stared down her share of shooters. She’s stopped point-blank shots, penalty strokes, tip-in attempts. She’s been scored upon, too, and even knocked over a few times in the process.

But she has always bounced back, a common thread in her life’s fabric.

On the eve of what could be the final game of her competitive field hockey career, Fuller can already celebrate the biggest victory of her young life. It’s a win that puts everything else into proper perspective.

Having just turned 17, Abby is a cancer survivor.

“Field hockey means the world to me,” she said. “With all my medical stuff, I use field hockey as a getaway. It’s something that makes me happy, and I just enjoy playing it.”


She enjoys the game and plays it well. This season, she has backstopped the Raiders to 12 wins (seven shutouts) and a regional championship while facing medical uncertainty that was both mentally and physically draining.

“Her strength through this season has been absolutely phenomenal,” said Janet Craig, Abby’s mother and Oak Hill JV coach. “How she has been able to focus, as a mom and as a coach, I am just amazed at her strength every day.”

“The athletic part of it is great, I’m happy for her,” added Jason Fuller, Abby’s father and athletic director at Lewiston High School. “But what really matters is that she’s a great person. She has a heart of gold and cares a lot about others. And I think those traits are a hell of a lot more important than any success on the field. And that’s going to make her successful when she gets older.”

Medical journey

Abby was in and out of hospitals frequently growing up. She was no stranger to calls from doctors, trips to the ER and to medical practitioners — in Maine and elsewhere.

But the meetings and phone calls this past April were different.


“We were a little shocked, I think,” Jason said.

Shocked, but not overwhelmed, he said, to learn that a December screening had found a cancerous growth on her thyroid.

“You never want to hear the word ‘cancer,’ but at the same point, I think we were all realistic that it was thyroid cancer, and it was a very treatable situation.”

Abby and her family knew there was a chance — a probability, even — that she’d one day have to fight cancer. From three months old, she fought a litany of medical issues, from benign tumors and aches and pains, to fractured bones and seizures.

“From the time she was in utero to the time she was diagnosed, she had everything from seizures and other neurological conditions to, she’s had 16 fractures over the years,” Craig said. “And she’s had multiple tumors removed from her body that were benign.”

After multiple trips to Boston, and even to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, the medical community was still stumped.


“At that point, they couldn’t give us a definite diagnosis, either,” Craig said. “A doctor said to me, and this has really stuck with me, that we should think of it as a 500-piece puzzle, and we have 20 pieces. We didn’t have the whole picture, but they’d present themselves in time.

“In seventh grade, she had a hemangioma form in her knee, which is extremely rare in the soft tissue,” Craig continued. “That was the major clue that sent us to a geneticist.”

There, she was diagnosed as having a PTEN gene mutation. The gene is, in part, a tumor suppressor, and certain mutations can lead to the development of tumors, both cancerous and benign.

“They were like, ‘Well, we think she fits into the PTEN.’ The reason they’d never looked into that before is that most children with the PTEN have developmental delays,” her mother said. “And she’s always been an honor student; she didn’t fit the mold. And she still doesn’t.”

Growing up with the game

Abby didn’t fit the mold of a prototypical field hockey player, either — at least, not at first.


“I remember her in the youth program, the first day we put goalie pads on her,” Oak Hill varsity coach Betsy Gilbert recalled. “She didn’t like playing in the field, so we put pads on her.”

The daughter of a field hockey coach, and of an athlete-turned-coach-turned-athletic-director, there was little chance Abby would escape the world of sports.

And she took well to goaltending, and grew to love it quickly.

“That has been her love and her home, right there, in this game,” Gilbert said.

“Coach Betsy was the one who got me to try on the goalie gear in the third grade,” Abby said. “She was the one who was rolling balls at me when I was young, and she really pushed me, really made me enjoy it. And she’s been there the whole step of the way since I was little. I just loved it ever since.”

The group of players with which she grew was special. Gilbert followed them through the youth ranks, and when the opportunity presented itself, began coaching at the high school level in time to see the players reach the varsity level.


And there was Abby, still donning the extra pads, still standing in front of drives and tips, and learning to adapt to situations on the fly.

Treating cancer

Less than a year ago, on a frigid December day, Abby had gone through another battery of tests. She was used to it by then.

“They had been watching her for a year with the nodules,” Janet said. “We had gone in December, and they had found a new nodule and they wanted to keep a close eye on it. We scheduled the appointment in April to follow up on it. That’s when they did the biopsy and diagnosed the thyroid cancer.”

“With (the PTEN mutation), thyroid cancer is one of the increased risks I have,” Abby said authoritatively. “It’s one of the higher risks.”

“Certainly, we didn’t expect it to happen at 16 years old,” Jason said.


Abby and her parents wasted little time deciding on a course of action. The quicker they acted, the more likely she would be to avoid radiation treatments.

“We were lucky that she was diagnosed so early, so that nothing worse happened,” Jason said.

But there was one condition.

“Even with the thyroid cancer, when they were scheduling it, she scheduled it around winter field hockey,” Craig said. “She was playing, and she wanted to wait until she was done all of the tournaments. She was in the middle of it when they found the new nodule. I tried really hard through the whole thing to allow her to have a say in the treatments and what she wants to do. She’s been going through this her entire life. She’s more well-versed in the medical field than anyone should ever have to be. Since she’s been old enough to make some educated choices, I’ve allowed her to have say in her treatment.

“We were fortunate they got her in, in a couple of weeks. They removed the entire thyroid, and they caught it when it was still encapsulated, so she was able to avoid the radiation treatment.”

Abby was socially cautious at first. She thrived on the pressure of being a goalkeeper, but off the field, she shied from the spotlight.


“I tried to keep it quiet for a while,” she said, “but a lot of people could tell that I was upset. I’m a very readable person. My emotions come across on my face. I knew it was something I couldn’t keep away from my friends and the people at school. I knew eventually, once I told someone, everyone would know. Once I got comfortable, I sat down with my friends. My mom called some of their parents. It just made it easier.”

Plenty of support

Earlier in the year — even before her cancer diagnosis — Abby had joined a teen support group through the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing in Lewiston. Because of her long medical history, the center bent the rules a bit to allow her to participate without an official diagnosis. The group was invaluable to her experience then, and even more so after the cancer was confirmed.

“For her to have that support through the diagnosis, and through the treatment and the surgery, and to have peers who have been through it, or had family members going through it, it was instrumental in helping her through it,” Janet said.

At school, Abby’s friends and teammates rallied around her.

“They wanted to know when my appointments were, when my surgery was,” she said. “The day of my surgery, I received messages from every one of the girls on the team wishing me luck. They all wanted to know when I was out of surgery.”


She told them, of course. And returned to the field in time for summer field hockey.

“Field hockey is a huge part of her getting through the medical things,” Jason said. “It’s a key for her. She’s had great teammates all along; they’ve been unbelievable with her, helping get her through things. Field hockey, it means the world to her.

“That’s the great thing about athletics. You build relationships with others, you’re friends for life, and no matter what the situation is, they’ll be there to help out.

“Abby was lucky that she understood that at a young age,” he continued, as tears welled in his eyes. “That’s probably why she wants to be in athletics after she graduates, even though Dad is trying to steer her away from it.”

Back on the field

Abby’s long brown ponytail flapped from side to side as she trudged from the sideline each game, sometimes whipping into her face as she settled in between the pipes, turning to face the field and 11 players who wanted nothing more than to fire the ball past her bright orange pads. This was her domain. Even cancer hadn’t taken it from her.


“It gets difficult at points,” Abby said. “When I get doctors’ appointments coming up, I get nervous. I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, what if they tell me they found something else?’ But my teammates are always backing me up. They’re supporting me. My coaches are supporting me through it all. Field hockey is my getaway. When I’m struggling with anything else, I go play field hockey.”

And for that reason, she has insisted on being treated as if nothing had happened.

“That’s the one thing that I stress is that I don’t want to be treated differently than any other person on the field, or any other person at school,” she said. “I don’t like being treated differently, and I don’t expect it from anyone.”

“It’s never about her, no matter what she’s going through,” Gilbert said. “She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer this spring, had surgery, and all she kept saying was, ‘Coach, I’ve got to get better; I’m going to fight this because my team is relying on me. We have our goals set for this season, and nothing’s going to stop it. This isn’t going to stop me.’ This kid, the heart of this kid is huge.

“She gets mad at me when I don’t push her hard enough. She tells me, ‘Coach, just grab my face mask like you used to. Smarten me up, keep pushing me.'”

Long road ahead


Regardless of Oak Hill’s fortunes in the Class C state championship, Abby’s road is far from over. Recently, Abby found out she has more abnormalities in her abdomen, again the result of her PTEN mutation.

“I’m constantly being monitored with this diagnosis, because it can come at any point,” she said.

She went back for her three-month checkup early in the season.

“When they did the ultrasound, the thyroid was all good, there were no new tumors,” Janet said. “But, because of new studies, and because of her history and because of other nodules they’d already discovered in other parts of her body, they decided they were going to do some more testing. They were following up with her kidneys and adrenal glands. She had some abdominal discomfort, and I took her and they did another ultrasound and they found a growth in her gallbladder. She asked me not to do anything in Boston until after field hockey.”

Abby’s next appointment in Boston is Nov. 3, two days after the state final.

Abby will suit up for that game and take her normal position between the pipes. She’ll face point-blank shots, penalty strokes and tip-in attempts. She may be scored upon, too, and even knocked over a few times.

But she will not be intimidated.

“When it’s a close game, the stress builds, but I thrive off that,” Abby said. “And I know my teammates will be there to back me up. I know the team will be behind me the whole time.

“It’s a lot like my life.”

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