The Montalbano family piled into Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday night to volunteer at the Nashville Predators Foundation Community Corner. Decked out in Gold and eager to talk about Alex's Lemonade Stand, a nonprofit with the mission of raising money and awareness of childhood cancer causes, the family was also there for a selfish reason.
"We are here to celebrate Mitchell and his accomplishments," Joey Montalbano, Mitchell's father said.
Attending games with Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt and the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund is more than just a sporting event for the Montalbanos.
"For us, it's a break from the reality that we're in," Montalbano said. "It allows us to have fun as a family; it allows the kids to act as kids and just have fun. They don't have to worry about needles and medications and treatment. They get to be kids; they get to have fun, and it brings a sense of normalcy in a very chaotic and stressful situation."
At just four years old, Mitchell was diagnosed with Pre-B-cell ALL Leukemia in 2014.
Leukemia is the most common form of pediatric cancer and its symptoms are not always easy to spot. Given the commonality of its symptoms, Mitchell's parents had no idea anything was wrong until his mom Kristy took him in for a visit with his doctor for what she thought was a common fever.
Like most moms, Kristy is extremely observant and noticed he was a little pale in skin color, that he would get short of breath walking short distances and that he had a few small bruises, but nothing overtly concerning.
After Kristy shared these observations along with the family's history of cancer, Mitchell's doctor was proactive in ordering blood work, which ultimately revealed the suspicion - to be later confirmed after further tests at Vanderbilt - that Mitchell did in fact have Leukemia.
Mitchell only had to be in the hospital for nine days after his diagnosis, but some patients are not as lucky. While some children see upward of 30 days or longer, Mitchell was able to go into remission after 28 days - the goal for Leukemia patients. Now in the maintenance phase, Mitchell will continue for another 12 months of daily at-home chemotherapy, monthly visits to Vanderbilt for IV chemotherapy and spinal chemotherapy treatments every three months.
Altogether, Mitchell will be in treatment for three years, a short time in comparison to other children's journeys. Pre-B-cell ALL Leukemia has a high cure rate, unlike other forms of pediatric cancers.
Mitchell will continue to attend games to cheer on goaltender Pekka Rinne and the team, all of whom are his favorite players. He will get to do all the fun things the Preds Foundation allows him to do, like meet the team post game and show off his team-signed jersey each time. He will play with his friends and see a sense of normalcy in his schedule soon enough.
Unfortunately, some of his friends will not be able to win the same battles. As a family, the Montalbanos are a small glimpse into what Hockey Fights Cancer Night is all about.
Hockey Fights Cancer Night, "shows that this affects real people, real lives. That's what we hope to show," Montalbano said. "And, that there is good that comes from it. Raising money, treatment, it gives us in the middle of it hope and solutions and we are the benefactors of that."
*Alex's Lemonade Stand was started by eight year old cancer patient Alex Scott as a lemonade stand that grew into an organization that has raised over $120 million to fund pediatric cancer research. Montalbano's company, Northwestern Mutual, has partnered with Alex's Lemonade Stand since 2012 and raised over $10 million to fund over 105,000 hours of research to fight childhood cancer.