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Anthony Daniels' inspiring fight against cancer chronicled in documentary short film

Anthony Daniels is a fighter and soon will become a boxer. Despite his burgeoning interest in the sweet science, the 23-year-old former hockey player from Ridgewood, N.J., has been a fighter long before he ever pulled on a pair of boxing gloves.

Daniels is an athlete and is proud of his past. He was a good enough high school hockey player that he was recruited to play collegiately at Division III Norwich University in Northfield, Vt.

The last few years haven't been easy for Daniels and a fluke accident ended his hockey career.

It was a crisp, bright January day, and Daniels and his buddies had just finished a day of playing pond hockey. Daniels owned a regulation-sized hockey net, which he brought home on the back of a friend's car.

The friend pulled into his driveway, but disaster occurred. Daniels was between the back end of the car and the net. The car somehow went into reverse. Daniels' foot was caught on the bumper. The net acted as a post.

His leg snapped in half, he said. Doctors put a full cast on it and he couldn't walk for seven months. His dream of collegiate hockey was just about over.

"It's kind of embarrassing to talk about," he said. "It was a total fluke, just a freak accident kind of a thing."

Daniels can laugh about it now. He was a good player, he said, and though he was primarily a right wing, he could play wherever he was needed.

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Anthony Daniels, right, with WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, center, and younger brother Vincent Daniels (Courtesy of Anthony Daniels)

Anthony Daniels, right, with WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, center, and younger brother Vincent Daniels …

He long had an interest in boxing, but he had a near lifelong commitment to hockey. With so much invested in his hockey career, he didn't have the time to take up boxing.

After his accident, he was taking classes at Fordham and had to give a speech in a public speaking class.

"Of this whole spiral of events that happened to me, this presentation was the cherry-on-top-of-the-sundae kind of a thing," Daniels said. "It's just so bizarre. Looking back, it's kind of eerie."

He chose to give his presentation on cancer. He had no reason why, other than that it struck him that it would be a good topic to discuss.

A month after giving the presentation, he wasn't feeling well and went to see his doctor.

He wasn't prepared for what was next. How could he? Nobody could.

He was 21, just starting his life, really, and he sat across from a doctor who was telling him he had cancer.

Daniels was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The last thing anyone wants to hear, particularly a young person, is that they have cancer. But Hodgkin's lymphoma is a form of cancer that is generally considered to be treatable and the five-year and 10-year survival rates are about 85 percent and 80 percent, respectively, according to Cancer.org.

And though it was jarring to hear the news, he wasn't too upset.

It was only after he thought he'd beaten it, and it returned that he seriously began to worry.

"It kind of hit me square in the face," he said. "You don't really want to think about it, but when you think you've beaten it and it comes back, you have to at least think, 'Wow, I could die. This is something that could kill me.' But it's not in my nature to give up or feel hopeless. That's not who I am."

That side of Daniels is brilliantly shown in the documentary "To Be Strong" by filmmakers Ken Spooner and Mike O'Brien.

The 15-minute short film, which has been entered in a number of film festivals, follows Daniels as he battles cancer for the third time.

Spooner said he and O'Brien were introduced to Daniels by a mutual friend. He was overwhelmed by Daniels' physicality when they first met.

"The first time I met him, he just grabbed my hand and he had probably the hardest handshake I'd ever felt," Spooner said. "I was like, 'Whoa, this isn't something I was expecting.' I don't know really what I was expecting. You hear about a kid with cancer and you think he's going to be weak and sick and instead, I met this guy who had this very firm handshake and was strong and alive. I thought, 'This kid is the real deal.' What we saw him do is amazing."

Daniels' most recent bout with cancer started shortly before last Christmas.

He felt awful when he got the news, but not for himself, and he refused to let the diagnosis get him down.

"When you hear you've beaten this, it's a great experience," he said. "It's a huge weight off your back, and it's something only someone who has beaten cancer can truly understand. But having been through this, what I saw was how much my family was sacrificing for me. Whatever happens to me, hey, you know, that's going to be what it is. My family, though, my parents and my brothers, they sacrificed their lives to fight this battle with me. I saw them doing everything they possibly could do and watched them essentially put their lives on hold as they did what they could for me.

"And so when it came back the third time, I thought, 'You know what? This is perfect. This is going to give me the opportunity to help someone else and to try to be an inspiration to others.'"

So he went hard at boxing. He went to the gym every day and did all of the things that the real fighters do.

He sparred, he skipped rope, he hit the heavy bag.

He's been through more than 600 hours of chemotherapy, and suffered from its effects, but he refused to give in.

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Anthony Daniels during one of his hospital stints. (Courtesy of Anthony Daniels)

Anthony Daniels during one of his hospital stints. (Courtesy of Anthony Daniels)

"What amazed me is that this guy would go to get his chemotherapy and then go right to the gym and train [in boxing]," Spooner said. "How many of us struggle to get to the gym every now and then just to get a workout in? And yet, this guy goes from chemotherapy into boxing? Incredible."

Daniels said he's bothered that many people have a perception of anyone who has cancer as weak and fragile. He wanted to change that impression.

"I'm fighting for my life and I'm fighting in the ring to inspire people and to let them know that just because something bad happened, they don't have to give up," Daniels said. "Keep fighting. Keep pushing."

Daniels is pushing as hard as he can. His disease, he said, has "sort of stabilized, which gives us more time to find a match. That's the end goal."

He needs a bone marrow transplant. And so far, he hasn't been able to find a match. He needs a 10-of-10 match, which matches five pairs of human leukocyte antigens, and out of 20 million people in the registry, not a single match has been found.

In a few weeks, Daniels will have his first full amateur fight. That, he hopes, will not only inspire others, as Jim Valvano so famously said, to never give up, but also to increase his odds of finding a donor.

He doesn't know if, or when a suitable donor will be found. He's not sure what is next, or what may lie ahead.

"The fear of the unknown is definitely the hardest part," he said. "But I've been blessed with the best support system I can have. I have great parents, brothers, incredible family and friends. They've kept me grounded. I'm trying to keep my focus on doing my part and trying to help someone else and maybe be an inspiration that changes someone else's life or saves their life, whether they have cancer or not.

"It's why I wanted to do [the documentary]. Obviously, that's going to help me to maybe get a match. But even if I don't, at least I can know that I did what I needed to do to help others and make the best of this hand I've been dealt."

The film's aftermath has yet to play out. Daniels must continue his fight, but Spooner and O'Brien have been overwhelmed by the response.

O'Brien said the ability to change people's lives is "truly incredible" for a young filmmaker.

"People saw the film and they contacted us and messaged us and told us how inspiring Anthony was for them," O'Brien said. "They were saying, 'You know, if Anthony has that attitude and can do that fighting cancer, I can get up off the couch and do something to help my life. It's not just people with cancer who are reaching out. It's people in all walks of life that have been touched by Anthony.

"For me, it's truly been incredible to be in this situation, to be able to positively impact people's lives. Anthony is an incredible guy and his courage and his determination have given us an opportunity to help tons of people's lives. That's truly been a blessing."

For information about becoming a bone marrow donor, visit bethematch.org

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