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Story published: 10-30-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

Faith, family and friends carry Zack Wills through cancer battle

By Lacy Hilliard

Johnson County High School Senior Zack Wills should be enjoying one of the most exciting years of his life while making plans for the future. But instead, he’s fighting for his life against a foe that most seventeen-year-olds would never dream of.

On May 2, 2013 Zack was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – a cancer of the lymphatic system. “The week before I was diagnosed I was talking to my fourth period psychology teacher, Stacy Reece. She noticed I had a swollen lymph node and asked me about it. She told me I needed to go to the doctor and get that checked out which I did the next day,” said Zack. “Other than the swollen lymph node, I had no other symptoms. This is very common for this type of cancer in the early stages. My cancer was found at the earliest stage possible, Stage 1A. This means it was contained to one side of my body, one area of my body, and I was symptom free. The doctors are amazed that Dr. Raina Sluder realized this could potentially be cancer and sent me for further testing.”

An obvious shock to both Zack and his parents, the diagnosis required swift action. “After I was diagnosed (Dr. Raina Sluder) referred me to the St. Jude Affiliate clinic in Johnson City that is located in the Niswonger Children’s Hospital. My doctor there is Dr. Marcela Popescu. I was then sent to the St. Jude Hospital in Memphis for further testing and treatment. My doctor there is Dr. Monika Metzger. Dr. Metzger has conducted many research studies on treating Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and reducing late toxicities in patients that have been treated for this disease.” To date, Zack has had 12 chemo treatments and 17 radiation treatments and in a few weeks he will undergo an Autologous Stem Cell Transplant at St. Jude’s Cancer Research Hospital in Memphis, TN.

Though Zack said his relationships with family and friends have always been close-knit, his diagnosis has put those relationships to the test and each has passed with flying colors. “I can’t begin to explain the support that I have had from family and friends. The entire community has been so supportive of me. It is amazing to know that I have so many people praying for a complete recovery. I have also received so much support from my school and churches in the community. Tristan Hill, Jeff Brooks, Blade Hampton, Justin Pardue, Cole Peters, JR Speed, Scotty Tester, Greg Roark, Gage Hampton, Ashlee Harmon, and Kelcey Graybeal are friends that have been by my side since the day I found out I was sick. I have always had a really close relationship with my parents. They have been there for me every step of the way. I know they would take this away if they could. We have a very close-knit family. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins have also been very supportive. Although we were really close before, I think we are even closer now.”

When asked how he is coping with his many trials, Zack responded, “My faith in God has been very important. I know that He is always by my side and will see me through this. I would also have to say that my friends have been instrumental in helping me cope with my illness. They have been there for me every step of the way. On days that I don’t really feel like getting out and going somewhere with them, they are always willing to just come and hang out with me. It is hard to explain how they have been able to lift my spirits. I now realize just how precious life is. I don’t think that I will ever take a single day for granted after this. I also realize just how important my faith is to me. I have had to solely trust in God to get me through tough days. I don’t know why this has happened at this point in my life, but I believe that God has a purpose and plan for me. We all face trials at some point in our life and this just happens to be that time for me.”

With formidable wisdom of one far his senior, Zack Wills has maintained a positive attitude and hopeful spirit throughout his battle and he advises others to do the same. When asked what advice he would give to someone battling a cancer diagnosis, Wills said, “I would tell them to stay positive and focus on the good things going on in their life. I would also encourage them to laugh as much as possible and maintain a sense of humor. I think that your attitude has a tremendous effect on the healing process.“

If you’d like to help Zack Wills or others going through similar situations, contact Flo Bellamy at the Community Center. Bellamy, in cooperation with the Johnson County Cancer Support Center, helps several local cancer patients each year. Remember that even if you cannot make a monetary donation, every volunteer can make a difference by donating his or her time, love, and support.