Providence High lacrosse player Noah Hays is about to start his second battle with a rare form of cancer.
The first one, which began two years ago, took 52 weeks of chemotherapy. Hays’ cancer went into remission then, and he is just as confident he’ll win the second fight, which began Friday when his family and doctors met to create a new treatment plan.
“I have my time being nervous,” he said, “but I figure, ‘Why be nervous when you can get a plan and get it done?’ But I’m more scared this time. I’ve done everything they’ve asked and now this comes up. But I just have to face it. There’s no good in just letting go. I have to get up and go.”
Coaches, students and the athletics director at Providence High marvel at Hays’ strength and courage. Last August, just as his year-long chemotherapy sessions were ending, the school honored him at a home football game against East Mecklenburg. The school asked fans to wear orange, for cancer awareness, and made Hays an honorary captain. Providence fans wore orange and the school’s large “P” in the middle of the football field – usually painted in the school colors of black and gold – was redone in orange. The Carolina Panthers sent a representative to honor Hays’ “Make A Wish” request and gave him an all-access pass to hang out with the team.
That support, Providence officials say, has never wavered.
“To go through the stuff he’s going through at this age, he has such a positive outlook on life, you know,” said Providence lacrosse coach Kevin Gowin. “A lot of people can get this kind of news and kind of fold and turn their head and go for all the negative stuff, but he tries to keep a positive attitude and a great outlook on life.
“But nobody – nobody – should have to deal with what he has, and especially go through it once, beat it and have it come back a few months after he’s been in remission.”
This journey began two years ago, in the summer of 2015. Hays was about to start his sophomore year at Providence and was playing pickup basketball with friends.
He felt a pop in his shoulder.
At first, he didn’t think much of it. He had played sports all of his life. He felt it was a typical sports injury.
“I kept it under wraps,” he said. “I didn’t think it was anything.”
But the pain remained, and after a few sessions with doctors, Hays was told he had an aggressive form of cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma that develops in bones and soft tissues. According to the American Cancer Society, there are only about 350 new cases diagnosed each year. This type of cancer typically spreads.
“They found cancer all around my body,” Hays said.
The treatment called for 52 weeks of chemotherapy. Somehow, Hays gained weight through all the rounds, keeping his taste buds and his love for pizza. He went from 180 pounds to 210. He said he still ate like a lacrosse player, but he wasn’t playing.
In August 2016, the chemo treatments stopped. Hays’ cancer had gone into remission. He missed his junior year of playing while undergoing treatment and was attacking his preparation for his senior year. He couldn’t wait to play again.
“He has such a strong drive,” Gowin said, “and he’s kind of a natural leader. He’s a great all-around kid and that’s one of the things I noticed the first time I started working with him in the fall. You could see the excitement he had to be back.”
Despite missing a year, Hays won the job as the team’s starting goalie and played in the Providence Panthers’ first game against Marvin Ridge. But during practice last week, Gowin said Hays experienced shoulder pain and seemed winded. Last Thursday, Hays went to the doctor for regularly scheduled scans and received the terrible news.
Less than a year since his cancer went into remission, it had returned.
Hays said they found a tumor under his breast plate and another on his stomach. He said doctors planned to do more scans this week and create a treatment plan Friday. Despite getting this news Thursday morning, March 2, Hays played that night against South Mecklenburg and he played his final game of his high school career Monday against Weddington.
Gowin marveled at how Hays put aside whatever pain and fear he was feeling. He said Hays made several big saves at goalie in those two games.
Hays said playing was therapeutic, especially Monday at home against Weddington. After the game, there were many hugs and handshakes. Few will probably remember that Providence lost 18-0.
“They wanted to admit me (to the hospital) Monday and get more scans done,” he said. “But I wanted to play. It was a big distraction. It felt like I didn’t have any worries, like I didn’t have anything going on, like I was normal. But that was my last game.
“I’m a senior. It was really tough with all my friends and brothers I’ve made on the team, and the relationships and memories I’ve made. But it was a good sendoff, I would think.”
Now Hays will focus on getting better – again. He doesn’t know what the treatment will be, but he plans attend Providence as much as possible while he goes through it. He’s been accepted to the University of Tennessee and plans to enroll in the fall. He wants to be a sports journalist.
Like always, Hays plans to keep his attitude positive and focus on the next day.
“When I wake up,” he said, “I think about all the stuff that’s going on, but I try and block it out until I can’t and try to not focus on all that stuff. I mean, you can’t do anything about it until you’re actually doing something. All my family and friends at school have been very supportive.
“Everyone knows what I’m going through and they’re so eager to help and do whatever I need.”
Coach Gowin said Hays has many people pulling for him – and many who admire his courage in this fight.
“He’s got a great mindset,” Gowin said. “That takes a lot of courage to go through and deal with what he’s had to go through – and now to have to do it again. It’s tough, but I really think Noah is tougher.”
Langston Wertz Jr.: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr