FAIRFIELD — Patrice Tsopanides and Morgan Galdenzi have been best friends for the past 12 years, sharing all the common formative experiences. Perhaps the highlight was their time as high school cheerleaders on championships teams before graduating from Fairfield Ludlowe in 2015.
It is that strong bond that has helped the girls through the most unfortunate of coincidences: Tsopanides in January was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Galdenzi was able to offer much more than emotional support: she has been waging an ongoing battle with brain cancer that was first discovered three years ago.
“Morgan went through all her medical stuff so I knew about it,” Tsopanides said. “So when I was going through mine she was the only person I told because I wanted to keep it under wraps and I didn’t really know what was going on. We all kind of knew there was something wrong.”
This spring Tsopanides and Galdenzi were brought to Mission, formerly known as the CT Challenge Center for Survivorship, the Southport facility that offers a variety of programs for those who battle cancer. It has been rebranded Mission, with an expanded training facility that also includes prevention memberships, to position it, according to the website, as the flagship for cancer survivors everywhere.
Tsopanides and Galdenzi were introduced to Mission by Giacomo Brancato, the basketball and basketball star who graduated this month from Fairfield Warde and went through a public recovery with non-Hodgkin lymphoma two years ago, which galvanized both the entire town and FCIAC community. The three attended Fairfield Middle School at the same time, and Brancato’s and Tsopanides’ parents have been friends for years.
“I want to give back to other people who have experienced the same thing, sort of like inspire or empower others so if someone does get diagnosed they have a positive outlook on it,” Brancato said. “Giving someone good spirits.”
Brancato is going a step farther for his friends: this year he is participating on behalf of Tsopanides and Galdenzi in the annual CT Challenge Bike Ride, the Mission’s primary fundraiser, which will take place on July 28-29.
“I joined in 2015 so this will be my third year doing it, and obviously I know them and what they’re going through so I felt that I should ride for them,” Brancato said. “It’s a good cause.”
“I want to give back to other people who have experienced the same thing, sort of like inspire or empower others so if someone does get diagnosed they have a positive outlook on it.” — Giacomo Brancato
Tsopanides said, “It’s really nice that he is riding for us and supporting us.”
Galdenzi attends James Madison, though she had to remain home this past semester after her tumor returned following two previous surgeries. She is undergoing experimental chemotherapy and plans to return to school in August.
“I thought everyone was super supportive when I was in high school,” Galdenzi said. “My coach was very supportive, teachers were super supportive.”
Tsopanides, who was an All-American cheerleader, has remained in town since graduating from Ludlowe. She just finished six cycles of chemotherapy and now will await the results later this summer.
“We just vent to each other because other people wouldn’t understand,” Galdenzi said, referring to first learning about her close friend’s condition. “There are times she couldn’t go out so I would go there and watch movies with her. In terms of understanding what it’s like, it definitely brought us closer. We’ve been good friends but now it has been a bigger bond.”
When Ludlowe and Warde held its annual Coaches vs. Cancer basketball game this past winter, it was also in honor of Tsopanides.
“That was really nice. It just shows we have such a strong community,” Tsopanides said. “I’ve been out of high school for two years now and even still they did things for me. They didn’t have to do that but they wanted to so that was great. All of the cheerleaders have always been there for us.”
Because cheerleading does not get the same attention as baseball and basketball, Brancato’s recovery took place on a larger stage.
“I think for him going through it in high school was way different,” Tsopanides said. “Morgan’s was a little bit more low key.”
Tsopanides and Galdenzi now work out weekly at Mission, which they agreed has provided great additional benefits.
“Our trainer pushes us to our potential and challenges us a little bit,” Tsopanides said. “I think it is great because she doesn’t treat us like there is something wrong. She doesn’t baby us, which I think is cool. She gives us a chance to learn to grow and get strength back.”
Added Galdenzi, “It’s really a good place. Working out always makes me feel better. If I don’t feel well I’ve always done that.”
Brancato will be playing baseball this year at Fairfield University. No matter where their future roads lead, the three friends know they will maintain a longstanding connection.
“I think it brought us closer,” Brancato said. “We now understand things that other people wouldn’t.”