CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Christian Keyes' favorite color was purple, but when it came to football, his colors were black and gold for his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers.
He was able to attend the parade for the Steelers after their last Super Bowl win and went to a Steelers game in October 2010 — an opportunity that brought tears of joy, his parents Greg and Maria Keyes said.
While a patient at Penn State Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., Christian's charisma persuaded a nurse who was a Baltimore Ravens fan to cheer for the Steelers.
Since Christian's diagnosis on April 9, 2009, with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, he had been in and out of Hershey Medical Center for treatment. Lymphoblastic lymphoma is a non-Hodgkins lymphoma and is a cancer of the lymphatic system.
Before his diagnosis, Christian was an active teenager, known for his sense of style — which he got from his father and Uncle Craig, known as "Unc. C" — his love of music, sports and family.
Christian always made sure his sneakers were clean, and he kept his clothes ironed. He taught one of his doctors about coordinating hats and belts with his shoes, Maria said.
Even his illness couldn't crush his spirit. Christian referred to each medical setback as "just a speed bump." He looked to the future and planned to go to pharmacy school at the University of Pittsburgh.
Despite his passion for the Food Network, Christian's favorite food was pizza washed down with orange soda. His family — including sisters Saige, 14, and Chloe, 12 — will dine on that meal on Thursday(Feb. 17) to commemorate what would have been Christian's 17th birthday.
"They have their good days and their bad days. The girls were very understanding. They also played a huge part in making this easier," Maria said of her daughters.
Christian attended Corpus Christi Catholic School in Chambersburg from preschool through eighth grade.
"For being a 16-year-old, his faith was very important to him," said Maria, who noted he was always concerned about others.
Christian attended Faust Junior High for ninth grade, then Chambersburg Area Senior High School, maintaining straight A's during the fall 2010 semester even though he was homebound. He was able to go to school for about half of his freshman and half of his sophomore years.
Christian became interested in being a DJ and recently had purchased a turntable with money he saved. His DJ name was DJ Blex, a nod to his mother's Mexican heritage and his father's African-American roots.
One of Christian's friends, who goes by Jaybird, paid tribute by writing a rap song about him, which is online at www.HotNewHipHop.com.
The Keyes family is a close one. Christian was known for giving his younger sisters hugs and kisses, as well as pointers in basketball and soccer.
"We have a strong family. We rally together. He knew it and felt it," Maria said.
Toward the end of his life, Christian couldn't communicate because of a breathing tube, but he would make the shape of a heart with both hands and point to the intended recipient.
In addition to biological family,"Uncle Matt" (Hopkins) and "Uncle John" (Rounceville), longtime co-workers of Greg's, and their families, were a part of the extended Keyes "family."
"He was always happy and upbeat. Personally, I think he was an old soul," said John, who added that Christian could talk as easily about politics and religion as he could about sports.
Before Christian's hair started falling out because of his treatments, he had "lots of big curls," his father said. As a show of support, Matt shaved his head.
"They're brothers from another mother. They're just family, about as close to being family without being blood," Greg said of John and Matt.
John and Matt established the Christian Keyes Foundation to help defray medical and transportation costs.
The foundation allowed Greg and Maria to alternate taking time off from work, so one of them was always with Christian when he was hospitalized.
A persistent cold
Maria said that before his illness was diagnosed, Christian had been sick about a month with a persistent cold. It was track season, and he got winded from running.
The first doctor's visit was in late March. When the symptoms recurred, Christian was prescribed a higher dosage of antibiotics.
The entire family was suffering with colds, so they just chalked it up to a bad cold season.
As the symptoms lingered, Maria asked for blood work and an X-ray. The family was told Christian was very sick and needed to see a pediatric specialist at Hershey Medical Center.
It was at Hershey they learned Christian had cancer. A 6-inch mass near his lungs was the cause of his breathing difficulties, and there were spots on his liver and kidney.
The doctors were optimistic that Christian could beat the cancer within two years. They couldn't operate, but put Christian on steroids to reduce the size of the mass.
Chemotherapy followed and all seemed to be going well one year into treatment, despite how ravaging the chemotherapy was on Christian's body. He spent a good part of that first year in a wheelchair, in severe pain with vascular necrosis.
"Christian said, 'One year to go,'" Maria said.
Then he woke up with numbness down one side of his face and started having headaches. The cancer had gone to Christian's brain.
"He took it with stride," Greg said.
"I don't ever remember him saying 'I don't want to do this'. Instead it was 'What's next?' He knew all his meds and dosages," Maria said.
Doctors had no timeline for treating the relapse and Christian had chemotherapy, radiation and a stem-cell transplant. Then the cancer affected his central nervous system.
Christian remained positive, wanting to go to summer school so he could graduate with his friends.
That wasn't to be, but he was remembered at his standing-room-only funeral, a celebration of life that brought the community together. Many were wearing the green and purple bracelets Matt's brother had made — green for the lymphoma and purple because it was Christian's favorite color.
He is buried at Corpus Christi Cemetery, in a corner lot that both Greg and Maria can see on their way to work each day.
"He put a smile on our face. He made us feel loved," said Greg, who added that about eight months ago, Christian thanked him for raising him to be a young man.
"You don't have to be 100 to live a full life," Maria said.