Charlie McGill girls scholarship winner: Allyn Lilien of Westwood by Sean Farrell of The Record
Two tubes attached to her chest helped keep little Allyn Lilien alive.
IV pumps shot one fluid after another to keep her going.
Room No. 8, the one on the corner, became her home for weeks at a time.
But the memories of shots and sickness from years ago are now just a blur to the Westwood senior.
It’s not what she remembers when she thinks about her illness.
It’s not how she beat cancer twice.
“When I think about it, I think about my friends coming to the hospital, my teachers and my classmates, everybody in the community,” Lilien said. “My family was always there. [I remember] playing with everyone, the relationships I made with the nurses, decorating my room or having an Easter egg hunt.”
The Cardinals’ girls lacrosse goalie received the Charlie McGill Scholarship Award at the NorthJersey.com Sports Awards on Wednesday night at Prudential Center for her tremendous courage.
Lilien had to fight for her life, soon after it began.
She was given a 50/50 chance to live after being diagnosed with leukemia at age 7.
Then she had to beat it all over again about a year later, against the same disease she was too young to fully understand.
“I would never think about the other 50 percent,” Lilien said. “I never sat there and thought, what if? I just lived every day, and tried to get up and go play with someone.”
As her time at Westwood winds down, the freckles on her forehead are fading.
The lingering effects from chemotherapy go away with each year that she is cancer-free.
The disease that once took all her strength has only made her stronger. Tougher. Wiser.
It’s given her a perspective unlike most her age.
“You can be angry about your cancer or you can gain strength from it and become a better person,” Lilien wrote in an essay. “I chose the latter.”
Lilien is getting ready to go to Montclair State, where she will major in education and play lacrosse for the Red Hawks.
She’s just finished an award-winning high school career, starting every game in Cardinals history.
With 882 career saves, she’s believed to be the all-time leader in Bergen County.
“I don’t know many kids who could recover from leukemia and be as good as she is,” said Taryn Tabano, who coaches for Lilien’s club team, Tri-State Lacrosse.
Those numbers don’t matter too much to Lilien. Not after what she’s been through.
She noticed the first sign of trouble in July 2007, while running wind sprints.
She was last, feeling out of breath.
“She was never like that,” said her dad, Steve.
Weeks later, she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. The initials of AML are the same as her own.
The day she was admitted to the hospital came exactly 40 years after her uncle and namesake Alan passed away from cancer.
At 7 years old, she began her own fight.
“You couldn’t ask for a better patient than her,” Steve Lilien said. “I don’t ever remember hearing her complaining. I don’t ever remember her saying, why me?”
“I just did what I had to do,” Allyn said.
The next few months of her life were spent at Hackensack University Medical Center.
In the beginning, she didn’t realize that leukemia was cancer, much less that it could kill her.
She ran with her friends through the hospital hallways like a playground. She wondered why strangers pushed her around in a wheelchair.
Soon, she found out.
“After treatment, I would lose so much weight,” Allyn said. “I would throw up constantly. I was uncomfortable. I had a lot of pain. Sometimes, it would hurt to just walk.”
“They give you medication. But I was on so much already that your liver can only take so much. So I couldn’t be on constant pain medication.”
Her family tried to make life feel as normal as possible, even while routinely signing dozens of consent forms for her treatment.
Her older brother worked on homework in a chair nearby and tutors from school came in when Allyn felt up to it.
She would get six-to-eight weeks of treatment at a time, then a few days at home.
Then the cycle would start over again.
“This is what our life was,” Steve Lilien said.
After six months, that cycle came to an end. She was healthy again and back in school, living life like a kid.
But about a year later, the cancer came back and she had to beat the odds again.
Allyn made it through a second time with the help of a bone marrow transplant.
On the day she left the hospital, about 200 people lined her street for a surprise welcome home parade.
Kids were let out of school, a police officer escorted her down the road and orange balloons filled the air for leukemia awareness.
“The whole community was behind us,” said her mother, Donna.
Allyn is the youngest of five siblings and comes from a family of athletes.
It wasn’t long after she came home that she returned to sports.
Point guard in basketball. Sweeper in soccer. Goalie in lacrosse.
Her hair was just growing back at first, but she still wanted to play.
“I’ve never used it as a crutch,” she said. “Sports have always been where I belong.”
Her stamina lagged behind many of the other kids, who became bigger and faster and stronger.
By high school, she dedicated her focus to lacrosse. She could play goalie, and do it well.
“I’ve always liked the pressure and the ability to change the momentum of the game as a goalie, and being able to be a leader,” she said.
Lilien was just 4-foot-11 as a freshman during Westwood’s first varsity season.
She gave up 18 goals in her debut and the Cardinals went on to lose their first six games.
An early slump wouldn’t shake her, though. The quick reaction time and hand-eye coordination made her a natural.
She became an All-North Jersey goalie as a junior, then led the region in saves this spring with 236.
The accolades, of course, aren’t all that important to her.
As she found her niche on the field, she kept just as busy off of it.
Lilien started her own charity to collect lacrosse equipment for children in need.
She volunteered around the community and spent time at internships so that one day she can become a kindergarten teacher.
“I often joke with Allyn that I want her to remember me when she takes over the world,” said Jamie Lynch, an English teacher at Westwood High School.
“She’s not a rocket scientist,” Steve Lilien said. “But she’s got a 4.22 GPA because she works hard. She’s not a great athlete. She’s a good athlete and a good goalie because she works hard. She works hard at everything she does, and she works hard at being a good person.”
Allyn will graduate from high school this month, just about a decade after first being diagnosed with cancer.
The scholarships and gifts are beginning to pile up for Lilien for overcoming what she has.
A drawstring bag and a baseball cap from the New York Rangers are new additions to her Washington Township home.
As her family sat down for a cheeseburger dinner one night recently, Steve Lilien looked around the room and asked his daughter a simple question.
“Wouldn’t you give it all back for a normal childhood?” he said.
“No,” Allyn replied, without hesitation. “It made me into who I am today.”