READFIELD — Alexis Michaud was pitching Saturday morning, and pitching well. Her Maranacook softball team was locked in a tight game with Old Orchard Beach, and the junior was making her way through the lineup. She struck out the last two batters of the third. She fanned the last two of the fourth. She whiffed the first of the fifth, her seventh straight batter retired.

In that moment, it was like the past year didn’t happen. The diagnosis. The surgeries. The trips to Pittsburgh for the best medical care she could find. The pain.

Pitcher Alexis Michaud, right, shares a piece of candy with her nephew, Bryant Marston, during a softball game Saturday at the David McPhedran Athletic Fields in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Michaud, 17, has been battling the effects of a cancerous tumor on her spine for more than 10 months, and she has the fused vertebrae to show for it. That would stop most people; it hasn’t stopped her. Michaud is back this spring with the Black Bears, as pitcher, captain, leader and inspiration.

“She’s a miracle,” mother Jen Michaud said.

“She’s a fighter,” father Bobby Michaud said.

Good luck finding anyone in the Maranacook community that hasn’t heard of Alexis’s battle. #MichaudStrong has become the rallying cry at the school since the fall. The slogan has appeared on shirts, hats, sweatshirts, signs and decals, and has been a fundraising effort to help the Michaud family pay for the expenses associated with Alexis’s care.

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“The day after my surgery, I had people from my school texting me every day, checking in on me,” said Alexis, sporting new uniforms that were provided by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, per her request. “It was awesome.”

Michaud was the pitcher for the Black Bears last season as well, and during a playoff game against Hall-Dale noticed her normally reliable command was off. More oddities popped up. Jen noticed her daughter’s speech began to slur, as if she had a “mouthful of spit.” After asking Alexis to stick out her tongue, Jen saw that it stuck out to the left.

Something was wrong. A trip June 22 to The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland confirmed it. Michaud had an MRI, and the family got word it revealed chordoma, a tumor that had developed at the top of the spine, at the base of the brain stem.

“It was hard,” Bobby Michaud said. “As a father, you want to protect your kids, and you can’t with something like that.”

Hearing the words “tumor” and “cancer” was stunning.

“We had all those thoughts running through our head of ‘What if it can’t be removed?’ ‘What if it continually comes back? What’s her life going to be five to 10 years from now?'” Jen Michaud said. “You hear the words ‘cancer,’ ‘brain cancer,’ that’s scary.”

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“Once they found out, we all got together. It was all of us, our grandparents came,” said Ashley Michaud, Alexis’s older sister who graduated from Maranacook in 2014. “There was lots of crying, lots of tears, not knowing what the results were going to be.”

At the center of the scene, Alexis felt mostly disbelief.

“It was scary at first. I didn’t know what I was going to go through,” she said. “I was kind of shocked that it had to be me. You always hear about other people getting it. But then when you find out it’s yourself, it’s just crazy.”

The next step was finding whom to see. The Michauds’ research led them to Dr. Paul Gardner at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who had an extensive history of performing chordoma surgeries. Tests in Pittsburgh confirmed the tumor had begun to eat away at bone in Michaud’s neck, so on Sept. 2, she went in for a surgery to remove the tumor, and the next day underwent a second procedure to fuse vertebrae to repair the damage.

Pitcher Alexis Michaud of Maranacook Community High School throws during a softball game Saturday at the David McPhedran Athletic Fields in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

She remained in the hospital in Pittsburgh for two weeks, during which the pain from the procedure reached extremes.

“It was 10 out of 10. It was bad,” Michaud said. “It was a sharp pain. I couldn’t really move much.”

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“We would FaceTime her. It was just rough through the phone, seeing how much pain she was in,” said Alissa Michaud, Alexis’s twin sister and the Black Bears’ catcher. “I went down to Pennsylvania to see her. … It was just so sad. It was hard for me to see her in that much pain.”

There were complications soon after. Michaud was cleared to return to Maine on Sept. 18, but had to get flown back to Pittsburgh on Sept. 25, when she developed a cerebrospinal fluid leak and meningitis. Between the surgeries and the recoveries, Michaud spent most of September and October in the hospital.

“It was really frustrating and annoying,” she said. “Sometimes, I wasn’t allowed to do anything, and I’d sit in the bed and do absolutely nothing. Most of the time, I was like, ‘I just want to go home,’ but I really couldn’t.”

When she got back, she was able to see in person how the support had grown. Ashley and Alissa had started the #MichaudStrong slogan in August, with the idea first to make some T-shirts. They soon realized the demand, however, and ended up selling more than 300 shirts and 100 sweatshirts. There was a “Michaud Strong” day, on which the whole school wore shirts in support of Alexis.

“We wanted to make something up to show that everyone was there to support her and be there for her no matter what,” Alissa said. “We sold a bunch of T-shirts, and people were like, ‘Can you make sweatshirts of this,’ or banners or decals and everything else. It was just awesome.”

Michaud began feeling better, and another scan in Pittsburgh in December gave her the news she wanted: She was tumor-free, and physically cleared to play softball in the spring. Back in September, she didn’t think she’d be back.

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“When they first told me they didn’t know if I was going to play softball, that hit different,” she said. “I love softball. I’ve been playing ever since I was in T-ball. Finding out I maybe wasn’t going to be playing at first was really hard.”

Instead, Michaud was back pitching to her sister by the preseason. Her coach, Don Beckwith, was stunned.

“I can’t believe she’s even playing. To me, she’s a medical miracle,” he said. “I’ve never seen anybody go through that and recover the way she has, and dedicate herself to recovery. She didn’t get there just by walking out of the hospital. She put a lot of time in. She’s worked hard.”

Catcher Alissa Michaud, center, and pitcher Alexis Michaud of Maranacook Community High School cheer Saturday as teammates score against Old Orchard Beach during a sixth-inning rally in a softball game at the David McPhedran Athletic Fields in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Michaud eventually thought of another way to show her devotion to the sport and the program. When the Make-A-Wish Foundation came to her to ask what she wanted, Michaud responded with new uniforms for the Black Bears, and some improvements made to the field. Last Monday, those uniforms were unveiled.

“It was hard making a decision at first,” she said, “but I chose softball to make the field better for people that play after me.”

Sporting those uniforms, for the first time, Michaud ended up pitching seven innings, striking out nine and leading Maranacook to a 7-3 victory over Old Orchard Beach. The remnants of her battle are still there: Her speech is still affected, her foot speed is diminished and she feels the effects of the fusion after she plays.

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“I’m definitely sore after pitching,” she said, “but nothing compared to what I went through.”

She hasn’t scored as decisive a victory over her cancer yet. She’s now tumor-free, but the understanding is the cancer will return at some point in the future. She’s due for another scan in Pittsburgh in June, after which the plan for future treatments and scans will become clearer.

Until then, Michaud will stick with the optimism and attitude that have served her well so far.

“She says it is what it is. She can’t change it, so she’d might as well make the best out of it,” Bobby Michaud said. “Pretty good attitude for a 17-year-old. Right from the get-go, that was her attitude.”

“She did beat cancer for now, and when it comes back, we’re just going to have to do the same thing, support her and everything,” Alissa said. “It’s awesome knowing that she went through hell and back with her surgery, and she just got through it really good and strong.”

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