A year after cancer treatment, Ward is wrestling in Hershey
It was around midnight when the Ward family dragged their exhausted bodies through the lobby of their Hershey hotel after the dreaded eighth day of son Timmy’s 21-day chemotherapy treatment cycle.
It wasn’t enough that Timmy had begun the most barbarous day of treatments around 8 that morning. But the treatment had triggered a fever.
A fever on this day meant a mandatory trip to the emergency room at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. There, he went through a series of blood cultures to make sure the fever was being caused by the treatment to eradicate the cancer from his body, and not from the cancer itself or another illness invading his system.
The night had dwindled to the wee hours of the morning by the time Timmy was released from the hospital and his parents, Tim and Michelle, could finally bring him back to the hotel. They had only seven hours to rest before they had to be back at the hospital for a follow-up to that day’s chemotherapy treatment.
Just as everyone was settling into their respective spots, Michelle heard that unmistakable, rising-in-pitch call of “Mooooooom,” the kind that makes a mother’s ears stand at attention like a cat who heard the can opener.
“Do you think you could go get me some chicken nuggets?” Timmy asked urgently.
For whatever reason during his three-month cycle of chemo in late 2018 and early 2019, Timmy’s lone food cravings were for McDonald’s chicken nuggets and chips and salsa. They were the only foods whose smell and taste didn’t make his stomach churn. In the moment, chicken nuggets with hot mustard and sweet tea were on his mind and Michelle remembers thinking how there was little that would make her leave the comfort of their hotel room.
“But how do you tell a kid with cancer no to anything?” Michelle says now, more than a year later. “So I said, ‘I’m on it.'”
It’s easy to laugh about that particular night now. It’s been 378 days since Canton’s Timmy Ward received his final chemotherapy treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It’s been 309 days since he was declared cancer-free. And today, right back in Hershey, Timmy Ward will wrestle in the PIAA Class AA Wrestling Championships at the Giant Center, less than five miles from the Penn State Health’s Children’s Hospital where he was a patient in the Pediatric Oncology department.
It’s as fitting a place to bring Timmy Ward’s story full circle. In the same city where he spent so much time as a cancer patient, he’ll step onto the wrestling mat today as a cancer survivor.
“He’s been dealt a lot more life lessons than the rest of us at our ages. And he’s learned how to deal with being down and how you have to get back up, and he’s gotten up many times,” said Lyle Wesneski, who is Canton’s wrestling coach and Timmy’s uncle. “If I could be as tough as him, I wish I could.”
A SURPRISING DIAGNOSIS
The lump Timmy Ward found just below his right armpit in July of 2018 was supposed to be nothing. He discovered it only because it was on a spot on his body where it was just skin on top of bone. Even though the lump was malleable, it protruded from the side of his torso.
It was concerning enough that after a couple of weeks, he decided to tell his parents about it. Working with teenagers as both Tim and Michelle do at Canton High School, they thought nothing of it at first. They both chalked it up to a swollen lymph node, common among adolescents. So they asked the pertinent questions: When was the last time he was sick? When was the last time he had an infection?
The answers Timmy gave led them to believe it was nothing but swollen lymph nodes which would eventually return to their normal size. They told their son to keep an eye on it and let them know if anything changed.
They weren’t alone in their opinion. There were no alarms raised on an initial visit to the family’s physician. When the lump became rock-like and the size of a quarter, they made another trip to the family physician for blood tests and a chest X-ray, which all came back clean.
For peace of mind, their family doctor referred them to a surgeon in Williamsport who could remove the lump and tell them exactly what it was. And on that initial consultation, the surgeon said 99 times out of 100 it’s a case of swollen lymph nodes which never returned to their normal size and there was no reason to be concerned.
The only issue the lump gave Timmy during football season was when it would rub the strap of his shoulder pads and become irritated. And in the midst of an All-State season which saw him run for more than 350 yards, post more than 600 receiving yards, intercept 11 passes, and score 15 touchdowns, Timmy wasn’t going to let surgery to remove the nuisance lump interfere with the Warriors’ eventual run to the District 4 Class A championship game.
So when he asked the surgeon if they could postpone the surgery, there was no hesitation in obliging the request. So Timmy played his final regular-season game against Troy. He played two postseason games against South Williamsport and Muncy. And when the season ended, his dad scheduled his surgery for the next week.
“During football I felt like I was out of shape, but I was training harder than I ever had before, and I didn’t know why I felt like that,” Timmy said. “Halfway through the season I definitely knew something was wrong. But I didn’t want to miss out on the rest of the season.”
“He had no other symptoms of anything. There was a lump. That was it,” Michelle said. “There were times we saw him on the football field out of breath and we wondered what that was about because it’s not his normal. But we didn’t even think about that until afterwards.”
The lump removal went perfectly. The surgeon returned to the waiting room afterward and told Tim and Michelle he removed a cluster of lymph nodes tied around each other. The surgeon said he would schedule them for a visit in a month to discuss the results of the biopsy. But when they began to fill out the paperwork for Timmy’s discharge, the nurse told them they were scheduled for a return visit in one week to go over the results of the biopsy.
It was the first time Tim thought maybe something was wrong.
“That always kind of bothered me,” Tim said. “I think the surgeon knew what he had taken out, but he couldn’t say anything until it was tested. I worried about that for a few days but then we went back to what you were told by the doctor, that it was probably nothing.”
Only Michelle remembers the date of Timmy’s diagnosis: Nov. 26, 2018. For everyone else, it was the first day of hunting season, rural Christmas. Even though he had to be in Williamsport in the afternoon for his biopsy results, Timmy still managed to join his dad at the family farm in the morning to put in a few hours in the woods.
In fact, Timmy was irritated his dad made him go home at 11 a.m. just to go to an appointment where they knew the doctor was going to tell them there was nothing wrong. The whole family treated the appointment as if it was no big deal.
Michelle, Timmy and youngest daughter Emmy, drove to Williamsport for the appointment and then they met the family’s oldest daughter, Kayla, for dinner. Tim, meanwhile, drove back to the family farm and headed back into the woods. He harvested a deer that day and went through the process of getting it to the butcher.
Meanwhile, Timmy, Emmy and Michelle sat with the doctor as he shockingly told them the lump he removed from Timmy was cancerous. It was Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Then there was silence.
Terrible, excruciating silence.
The three family members looked at one another. Until this moment, the idea the lump under Timmy’s right arm could be anything other than a harmless swollen lymph node hadn’t been broached.
“It felt like a nightmare. It was hard to believe, even that night,” Timmy said. “I woke up the next day and honestly thought it was a dream. I sat in bed the next day and thought, this is the real deal.”
Michelle canceled their planned dinner with Kayla. She knew she had to get home and tell her husband the news. Tim doesn’t have a cell phone. He was in the woods anyway, so it’s not like he would answer. And it wasn’t exactly a message she wanted to leave on the home answering machine.
She doesn’t remember that hour drive home. She remembers seeing Emmy in the back seat trying to comprehend what they were told. And she remembers only two things Timmy said during the trip.
“I was devastated, my head was spinning,” Michelle said. “And he says, ‘I guess there aren’t many kids who play an entire football season with cancer.’ And then he said, ‘it is what it is.’ From the very beginning he was as positive as he could possibly be.”
As Tim emerged from the Woods, he ran into his brother who asked if he had talked to Michelle. She had apparently called her brother-in-law’s house and the farm trying to find him. He knew he needed to head home.
He pulled up to the house just after Michelle and the kids had gotten home. Tim watched his only son walk into the house dejected. As Michelle walked up to his truck, he knew immediately something was wrong. As blunt as could be, Michelle said “Timmy’s got cancer.” The news didn’t so much sink in as it stunned Tim and everybody else who heard it that day.
Wesneski was lost in disbelief when he heard. Muncy’s Christian Good, who is first cousins to the Wards, was on the family farm hunting that day when he heard and he was left speechless. Good and his family stopped in to visit with, and pray with, Timmy that night.
“Not knowing what the end result was going to be was scary,” Good said.
21 HELLISH DAYS
There was never really any time for anybody in the Ward family to contemplate the doom-and-gloom scenarios of a cancer diagnosis. In only a couple days, the family had to select at which facility it wanted Timmy’s treatments. Hershey was the first of the three facilities in which his case was referred to call, so the family chose there. Besides, in a wrestling family where Tim was once the head coach at Canton, Hershey seemed to make the most sense.
Once doctors in Hershey confirmed Timmy’s diagnosis, they did surgery to insert the mediport to deliver the chemotherapy treatments to his veins. They had injected Timmy with a florescent dye which illuminated cancer cells and clusters in his body on an infrared scan. Timmy’s chest lit up like a Christmas tree.
He had hidden threats everywhere: Unnoticeable lumps across his chest and collarbones all the way to the other side of his body. They were lumps small enough to go undetected during an X-ray and couldn’t be felt when just touching his chest. But there they were on the scan.
Doctors conferred and made a recommendation for treatment. The Wards’ lives changed drastically and immediately.
The plan included four 21-day cycles. Days 1, 2, 3 and 8 would be for treatment with Day 8 taking the worst toll on Timmy’s body. The days in between treatment days were designed for rest and recovery so his body could handle the next treatment.
Doctors did their best to reassure the entire family that Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was not only treatable, but curable. The one-year survival rate for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is north of 90%. The five-year survival rate is still more than 85%.
It eased the minds of everybody involved while still understanding how arduous the process was going to be.
“They had to tell you this crap might kill you,” Timmy said. “And even going through the chemotherapy, that stuff can kill you, too. The chemo makes you feel worse than the actual disease. To think that what’s trying to heal you can kill you is kind of scary. And to lay there and not be able to do anything about it, it sucks. And I definitely had the feeling that this might end me.”
“From the first day, the people at Hershey were great. They said we have the army to kill this cancer. They re-emphasized that and we trusted them,” Tim said. “But then they said at the same time, we’re going to poison your son with stuff that can kill him, but we’ll be right here to make sure that doesn’t happen. And the only thing that’s going to happen at the end of this is your son is going to be cancer-free.”
Life became robotic for everyone in the Ward family, dictated by the treatment schedule. The focus was solely on making sure Timmy was where he needed to be when he needed to be there and doing what he was supposed to when he was supposed to be doing it.
Tim and Michelle both missed what they estimate at dozens of days of work at Canton High School, Tim as a gym teacher and Michelle as a secretary. But it was the regimented structure of the treatment process which helped hold the family together and prevent everyone’s mind from running rampant with all the negative thoughts.
Only in moments of isolation did those thoughts come to fruition. As Tim laid in bed at night, he couldn’t help but think of the consequences of cancer no matter what Timmy’s prognosis was. Michelle would wait until she was alone to break down because she didn’t want Timmy to see it and worry.
They found ways to get through the Day 8s together, even the first one which resulted in a fever which required Timmy to be admitted to the hospital for a week. Nothing was harder than leaving Timmy in a hospital to return to a hotel room miles away from where he needed blood transfusions because all his blood counts were low.
“There were some pretty tough nights going to the hotel without him,” Tim said. “At that point, there’s not a whole lot to talk about. It’s not a normal thing for a couple to go through.”
Timmy got through his first cycle and returned home on Christmas Eve of 2018 after that week-long hospital stay. The first Day 8 of treatment included six types of drugs injected into his system, each with a different side effect. One makes your body swell. One turns your urine maroon. And one makes your hair fall out. But instead of watching it fall out in clumps, piece by piece, Timmy asked to have his head shaved and beat the chemo to the punch.
So on Christmas Day, Timmy Ward shaved his head.
The end of his second cycle signaled the halfway point of his treatment. At that point, doctors did the same scan with the fluorescent dye to track how well the chemo was working. With at least 50% shrinkage of the tumors from the first scan, doctors would continue with the course of treatment he was on. Anything less, they would have to change their approach.
Nearly all of Timmy’s tumors had shrunk or were gone. For the first time since his diagnosis, everybody involved could take a deep breath. Even though the next two cycles were going to be the most brutal as the chemo attacked the good parts of his body as well as the infected parts, there was at least a light at the end of the tunnel.
BACK AND BETTER
Timmy Ward is used to being the center of attention. He’d just rather not be.
But as a wrestler, he’s used to all eyes being on just him and his opponent in the center of the mat.
On Feb. 21, 2019, he was the center of attention again. He stood in front of a bell hung feet above his head inside the Pediatric Oncology department in Hershey. Behind him, the word “Inspire” was written on the wall in three-dimensional letters. He stood uncomfortably in the middle of 12 family members, including his mom and dad and sisters Kayla, Brooke and Emmy, as well as nurses and doctors from the oncology department.
A Penn State hat hid his missing hair. A purple TCU hoodie and gray Penn State sweatpants hid his pale skin and the toll the chemo had taken on his body. A nurse instructed him to drop some beads into whichever letters of the word inspire he chose to symbolically leave his mark on the hospital. When he was done, she told him to ring the bell as loud as possible.
He followed the instructions, with five pulls of the rope on the hammer of the bell, he sent echoes through the halls, signifying his final chemotherapy treatment. Timmy looked out over the people who had gathered, gave two thumbs up with a get-me-out-of-here smirk across his face. It was a Day 8. He wasn’t feeling well. He wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep. That’s how he wanted to celebrate finishing cancer treatments.
Timmy took a deep breath and looked at his mom. As he took a step forward, tears welled in his eyes. Three months of pent up emotion came out in that moment. Timmy wiped the tears from his eyes. Michelle pulled him close and patted him on the back.
“It’s over,” she said. “It’s OK.”
“I know,” Timmy said. “I’m good.”
That was the day his treatments ended and the day his recovery began. Timmy still wasn’t able to participate in most physical activities because of the mediport in his chest. Doctors also needed to make sure his scans were clean before they could declare him cancer-free.
Because nothing about this process has been easy, there was a concern with his initial scan post-treatment. It appeared there was an enlarged lymph node in Timmy’s abdomen. Doctors said it was borderline impossible for a swollen lymph node to be cancerous after the bombardment of treatment to which they had just subjected his body. Doctors wanted to see him again in three weeks to see if the swelling dissipated.
For three weeks, everyone waited impatiently. When they finally returned to the doctor for another scan, they doctor stared inquisitively at the newest scan.
“I said ‘can you just tell us if it’s gone, yes or no?'” Timmy said. “And they said yes, it’s all clear. It was amazing to look at the scan and see everything was gone. And seeing the relief on my parents’ face was nice.”
On May 1, 2019, Timmy Ward was declared cancer-free. He didn’t have his mediport removed until June 6. During the time between, he made plans for how he was going to come back as an athlete, and the day he was cleared to resume activity, he was at the gym in Canton.
Timmy remembers barely being able to lift the bench press bar that day with no weight on it. He went into wrestling practice and couldn’t do five push-ups. Walking around the block was a struggle. Walking through the woods was even harder.
Until those moments, it hadn’t been obvious just how much chemotherapy had taken from his body. Not only did it take the cancer, but it also took his strength, his stamina, and every ability of what made him an all-state caliber football player and wrestler. But he knew he wanted to get back as quickly as possible.
“Nobody knew if he was going to be able to come back,” Wesneski said. “But did I doubt it? No. I know there’s only one way he does things and that’s all out.”
Timmy signed up for a football camp at East Stroudsburg University that summer. His grandfather took him and watched him struggle to do the things which had seemed so easy for him the previous fall. He couldn’t catch the ball. He couldn’t cover a receiver to save his life. Watching from the sideline, his grandfather felt horrible watching him struggle.
A few months later, he signed up for the Lock Haven Fall Classic wrestling tournament. Timmy laughs about it now knowing he probably had no business being there competing. But it was great to have some sense of normalcy again. At the tournament he beat Athens’ Alex West, who recently qualified for the state tournament. He lost in the semifinals to Hazleton’s Jake Marnell, who recently qualified for the AAA state tournament. But he struggled with his stamina.
“He’s not the most naturally gifted wrestler, but he’s always in shape,” Tim said. “That was a struggle, but he battled. It was the first time I’ve seen in his face that he wanted to call timeout or twirl his finger (for injury time) which he never would have thought of doing before.”
By November, he was ready to go. He opened the high school wrestling season in December by winning the Darren Klingerman Invitational at Bloomsburg. He finished second at the Penn Cambria tournament, losing to state qualifier Thomas Dresser of Spring Grove in the final. He won the Tunkhannock tournament after Christmas and finished second at the New Oxford tournament in mid-January, losing to top-ranked Tyler Stoltzfus.
He was the key cog in a lineup for Canton which won the Northern Tier League championship for the first time since 2005. He won a North Section title. And on the one-year anniversary of the day he rang the bell in Hershey, he defeated Mount Camel’s Shane Weidner, 11-1, at the District 4 tournament.
A week later he was in a win-or-go-home match at the Northeast Regional tournament. Win and he advanced to the state tournament. Lose and his season was done.
His mom sat among the Canton fans nervous as can be. His dad took his spot at the top corner of the Magic Dome in Williamsport, leaning against the railing, almost hiding from everyone except his closest friends. Timmy’s goal is not only to reach the state tournament, but earn a medal there.
For the first time, even he was nervous, so nervous he told Wesneski he wanted to cry. This match had consequences none of his other previous 41 matches this year had. Wesneski walked up to Timmy before he reported to the scorer’s table and grabbed both sides of his face and looked in his eyes.
“With what you just went through in the last year, what you’re going through in this five-minute match is nothing,” Wesneski said.
Turns out Timmy didn’t need five minutes. It took just 52 seconds to pin Wyoming Area’s Connor Wrobleski and secure his spot at states. He defeated Weidner again later, 10-2, to finish third at 170 pounds. But in the moments after he pinned Wrobleski, he knelt on the mat, head down, face in his hands. The weight of the world was off his shoulders.
“When I got home that night, I remembered the pictures of how he looked exactly a year ago,” Tim said. “He looked horrible. He looked like he was in pain. And I was just like ‘wow, it’s amazing what the human body can do in one year.'”
“A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that I’d be here right now,” Timmy said. “I think I’m back to where I was, if not better.”
Timmy Ward looks as if his body is chiseled from granite. The definition he gained tossing hay bales on the family farm in the summer of 2017 has returned. He’s strong. He’s in shape. He’s dangerous on the wrestling mat.
Only the wispy hair on his head with a thinning spot in back hints at what he’s been through. He doesn’t want his cancer to define him.
He wants it to be part of his story. He wants to use that story to inspire others who are going through something similar.
He’s expressed to his mother that he might want to pursue becoming a nurse when he goes to college. He’d even like to work in Pediatric Oncology like the nurses who were with him.
A lot of people need help getting to the bell.