One student helps another, raising money to pay for cancer battle

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Gabriel Zullo, left, and Shashank Shamshabad — both students at Guilderland High School — bump elbows in the school principal’s office on Thursday afternoon after Shashank presented Gabriel with a check to help with medical expenses. Zullo is in remission after more than a year battling Ewing sarcoma.

GUILDERLAND — When freshman Gabriel Zullo and his mother, Abbie, signed in at Guilderland High School on Thursday afternoon, they got a warm greeting from the receptionist who gave Gabriel a thumbs-up.

On the glass that separated her from the Zullos was a sticker in the shape of a yellow ribbon that said “Jenna” and “Gabe.”

A yellow ribbon represents sarcoma or bone cancer.

Only one in a million people a year are diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma — a randomly occurring cancer with no known cause most often found in teenagers or young adults — according to the National Cancer Institute.

Two of them are students at Guilderland High School: Zullo and Jenna Meier, a junior.

As Jenna was beginning her treatment in March, Gabriel was just finishing his year-long treatment.

He is now in remission and awaiting the latest scans to confirm that, his mother told The Enterprise on Thursday.

A tall young man with brown eyes that crinkle above his mask, indicating a smile, Gabriel looks fit.

He recalls finding a lump on the back of his leg and telling his father. The diagnosis of Ewing sarcoma came swiftly as did community support.

“Altamont Elementary School, Farnsworth Middle School, the high school — so many people came together to support us,” said Abbie Zullo.

The family also leaned on their faith, she said, with support from their church, St. Vincent de Paul in Albany. “We just had to keep going,” she said.

Throughout the ordeal, Gabriel attended his classes remotely, working on a computer — a schedule that coincided with the school’s remote learning due to the pandemic.

Abbie Zullo also praised the treatment Gabriel received at Albany Medical Center’s Melodies Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders.

Gabriel credits physical therapy for his fit condition. During radiation treatment, he explained, the back of his knee got burned. Because he propped up his leg to reduce the pain, his ligament shortened. So he has taken up physical therapy.

“I knew I’d live,” Gabriel said. “I was confident I’d be successful to get rid of it,” he said of the cancer.

The Zullos were at the high school on Thursday because a schoolmate of Gabriel, Shashank Shamshabad, a senior, had raised over $1,500 for the Zullos and was presenting them with a check.

Shashank co-founded a group called the Balance Foundation “to get youth involved in the community, to do whatever we can, just to help everyone,” he said.

He told The Enterprise that 10 to 20 kids were involved and he had had Zoom meetings with the group that included people from as far away as Utah and Texas.

Shashank will be a freshman at New York University next fall, pursuing liberal studies and politics.

His career goal is to enter politics to make “a difference for the good,” he said.

As a Guilderland freshman, Shashank addressed the school board as a student council representative, which planned a peaceful walk-out in the wake of the 2018 Valentine’s Day shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida.

That same year, Shashank and his brother, Sidharth, two years older than he, won third place in a competition for high school entrepreneurs for Public 911, a voice-recognition app that would make it possible in emergencies for people to speak into a telephone or other device and make a voice call to first responders and send location information, without actually dialing.

On Thursday, Shashank’s father, Baswa Shaker Shamshabad, commented on how good his son was with computers and said that the family had wanted him to go into computer science.

“He wants to make changes in other’s lives,” said Baswa Shaker Shamshabad with a shrug and a smile.

As Shashank handed over the check, Gabriel said it would “help pay off bills and other medical expenses.”

Principal Michael Piscitelli took a picture and Abbie Zullo, her voice thick with emotion, said, “Insurance will only pay for so much; we really appreciate this.”

When Gabriel was asked about his own future plans, he said, with several years yet in high school, his path is not yet defined. 

“I hope I might be able to help people,” he concluded.

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