For the first eight years of his life, Sy Sherman played sports and had sleepovers, just like most kids his age. He enjoyed school and fit in well with his peers. Then, in the blink of an eye, his life changed forever.
At eight years old, Sy was diagnosed with Hepatocellular Carcinoma, the most common form of liver cancer worldwide but extremely rare in the United States, especially in people under 20 years old. HCC, as its called, is the cancer that killed both Mickey Mantle and Ray Charles, and patients are typically told they have three to six months to live, according to MedLinePlus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Nine months since his diagnosis, Sy's cancer has spread to other parts of his body, making his fight that much harder. But amid constant trips from his home in Salinas, Calif. to the Stanford University hospital an hour and a half away in Palo Alto, Sy -- an avid boxing fan -- has found hope from an unlikely source.
He's been befriended by 23-year-old undefeated super featherweight champ Eloy Perez, and Sy, now 9, is helping out in the gym -- he's even become the 'official' belt carrier for the Perez team.
It all started when a local newspaper ran a piece about Sy. When Sam Garcia, Perez's assistant trainer, read the story, he jumped at the opportunity to help.
Diagnosed at birth with Congenital Heart Disease, Garcia himself wasn't supposed to live very long -- he spent much of his youth in the same Stanford hospital that Sy now knows well. And he dealt with similar issues in terms of uncertainty and fear.
"The relationship is a little different," Garcia, 29, tells The Huffington Post.
"I don't really try and talk too much about what he's going through. My job is to give him an outlet to hang out at the gym while Eloy is working out and not have to go through all the questions and people in his face and not have to be constantly thinking about what he's battling."
As both Perez and Garcia will attest, the friendship helps each face the distinct challenges ahead. "He's just a great kid," Garcia says. "He wasn't shy about anything at the gym. He's definitely an inspiration to our entire team. He has such a great attitude even though he's going through something so difficult."
For Perez, whose life consists of a regimented daily training routine, having Sy around has been a valuable learning experience.
"Sy has brought something very special to our team," he tells The Huffington Post via email.
"I thought that I had fought some great fights and faced some amazing fighters in my career, but it all pales in comparison to what Sy faces every day. ... He is a warrior in every sense of the word and has inspired me in every way imaginable."
The friendship is something that Matt Sherman, Sy's father, believes has boosted his son's mental and emotional health.
"He goes over there and he's smiling," Sherman says. The team "adopted him like their own son. He talks and talks nonstop. He's not shy or quiet there. He's who he is around his family. When he's in the hospital, he doesn’t usually want people to see him. If he trusts someone, he's like their best friend."
Very quiet and gracious over the phone, Sy expressed a similar sentiment. "I sometimes watch [Perez] train," he says, adding that he looks forward to his weekly visits to the gym, where he often shadowboxes with his newfound hero.
As wonderful as this friendship has been for Sy, the fact remains that he is very sick. He still attends school, solves math problems and spends time with his friends, but he goes to bed not knowing what the next day will hold.
Matt Sherman is doing everything he can for his son, but remains readily aware of what the future may hold. Busy with his endless responsibilities as caretaker, father and friend, Sherman lost his day job, something the family could hardly afford given the enormous cost of Sy's treatment. The Garcias have helped as much as they can, but debt is piling up.
Sherman, Sy's stepmother, and his doctors are all currently debating whether or not to start a 12th round of chemotherapy. In addition to the psychological and physical toll another round of treatment could take on Sy, doctors recently learned that he has lost a quarter of his kidney function -- and they're afraid the next dose of chemo would do irreparable harm.
But still, Sy remains upbeat. His favorite teammate can't help but take notice either.
"He is always smiling," Perez says.
"Even on his toughest days, he fights through. He makes me want to work harder and reach my goals of becoming a world champion."
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