Remarkable return from leukemia lands Alston Comeback Player of the Year award

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – October 27, 2013 was a special day for Kevin Alston.

Named in the starting lineup for the New England Revolution’s regular-season finale against the Columbus Crew, Alston marched onto the field alongside his teammates like he had so many times before. Taking up his usual berth at left back, he played 74 minutes and helped shut down the Crew en route to a playoff-clinching 1-0 win.

Afterwards, Alston celebrated the accomplishment with his teammates both on the field and in the locker room, slowed only slightly by an ice pack wrapped around a sore right hamstring. He boarded the team’s charter flight back to New England and began quietly looking ahead to a postseason meeting with Sporting Kansas City.

No one so much as mentioned cancer.

Alston can’t pinpoint exactly when the symptoms began and it’s difficult for him to describe them with any type of clarity, but for months – perhaps even years – he knew something wasn’t quite right. Soreness persisted for days after training sessions and games. Joints ached constantly. Energy was low even after minor activity.

Just 24 years old and in peak physical condition, frustration set in for Alston, who assumed he simply needed to work harder to keep himself in top shape. Maybe my first few years as a professional athlete are catching up with me, he thought. Maybe this is how everybody feels and I just need to push through it.

So Alston pushed. Until he couldn’t push anymore.

After battling through 88 minutes of a March 30th meeting with FC Dallas despite feeling cooked following pregame warm-ups, Alston was subbed off with what he believed was a run-of-the-mill illness. A few days rest would have him well enough to get back on the field, he figured.

But there was just enough reason for the medical staff to order precautionary blood tests. And what they found changed Alston’s life and shook the foundation of the Revolution organization.

In early April, Alston was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia; a rare but treatable form of the disease. It was the reason for his persistent soreness, achy joints and limited energy. It wasn’t because he wasn’t working hard enough. It was cancer.

Alston was floored. He wondered about his future as a professional soccer player, to be sure, but above all he wondered about his future as a healthy human being. Leukemia is a terrifying word.

But through it all – underneath the shock and trepidation – there was relief. Alston had an explanation for why he’d struggled so mightily through recent months and years, and while it wasn’t an answer he’d ever expected to hear, it was an answer nonetheless.

“In the past couple years, I never really felt like I used to. Looking back at the end of college and my early years here (in New England), I thought maybe that’s just part of my progression; it is what it is,” Alston said. “Finding that diagnosis, things kind of made sense why I was feeling that way.”

Alston had his answer. Now it was time to go about finding a solution.

On April 8 it was announced that Alston would be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the Revolution in order to undergo treatment for his disease. He hoped to return to the team “in the future” according to the official press release, but first he needed to get himself healthy.

There was good news. Although there is no cure for CML, it is one of the most treatable forms of leukemia, with a long-term survival rate roughly equivalent to that of the general population. It would be a waiting game – undergoing treatment, taking the prescribed medication and documenting the progression – but there was hope that Alston would not only be healthy, but also be able to return to the field.

In the weeks following his diagnosis, Alston spent as much time as he could around the team, visiting the locker room and watching training sessions from the sidelines. By late May, his progression was such that he was allowed to return to light jogging and passing exercises. By early July, he was back in training.

Alston was removed from the disabled list on July 15 – just three months after his diagnosis – and found himself on the bench for the Revolution’s two-game road trip through Colorado and Columbus. It was a remarkable step in Alston’s road to recovery, but the biggest step was yet to come.

On July 27, in front of almost 100 friends and family in his hometown of Washington, D.C., Alston made his comeback complete by stepping onto the field in the 84th minute of a 2-1 win over D.C. United. It was less than four months after he’d been diagnosed with cancer.

Alston went on to make four more appearances following his return – two as a starter and two as a substitute – and none were quite as special as that first step back onto the field at RFK Stadium. But his start in the regular-season finale against Columbus, when cancer was no longer a storyline, held its own special meaning.

“It’s a great story,” Alston conceded, “but it was good just to be normal and part of the team and just another guy trying to help out.”

Following his diagnosis, that was all Alston ever really wanted; to get back to that place where he was just another member of the New England Revolution. The fact that he got there in a matter of months is remarkable and why Alston was named Major League Soccer’s 2013 Comeback Player of the Year.

Alston perceptively described his 2013 season as a rollercoaster, filled with the devastating lows of a cancer diagnosis and the euphoric highs of returning to the game he loves.  But the best part is that the ride’s not over. Perhaps in a way he couldn’t have imagined possible earlier this year, Alston is looking toward the future.

“I’m excited. I’m optimistic,” he said. “I’m going to do what I can control, I’m going to work as hard as I ever have and I’m going to make sure now that I have no restrictions, that I’m fit the way I want to be and the way I used to be. I’ll be ready to go no matter what the situation is.”

Alston will be the first to tell you that he hasn’t beaten cancer. Because there is no cure for CML, he continues to undergo treatment and likely will for the rest of his life. Alston didn’t have cancer. He has cancer.

But while this particular form of leukemia can’t be “beaten” as of yet, it can be controlled. It can be overcome.

Kevin Alston is living proof.

“Still to this moment, I don’t know what’s going to happen down the road,” he said. “But while I’m playing, I’m going to give it my all.”