Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Student won't let cancer strike him out

Davidson Academy junior Nathan Stewart prepares to throw a baseball during practice. Stewart was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma earlier this year.

Davidson Academy junior Nathan Stewart leans on teammates as he battles melanoma

By LEA ANN OVERSTREET • Staff Writer (Tennessean0 • April 30, 2008

Finding out he had cancer didn't worry Davidson Academy junior Nathan Stewart too much because he knew he had three factors working in his favor: family, friends and baseball.

Last fall, Nathan found a spot on his head and eventually discovered he had Stage 3 melanoma. Melanoma is a type of cancer that is almost always curable in its early stages, but its seriousness lies in how quickly and how far it can spread.

After the diagnosis, Nathan underwent a six-hour surgery at Vanderbilt.
"I guess I had the worst kind you can get because it spread so fast. They had to take out a bunch of lymph nodes in my neck because it had spread to them," Nathan said.

What scared him the most was not having cancer, but the possibility of not being able to play his favorite sports, football and baseball.

"This would be really hard if I couldn't play," Nathan said.

Radiation took a toll

It also would have been hard for baseball coach Jim Carter, who says Nathan is one of a kind.

"I forget about the cancer most days because he plays hard, playing essentially every day, and he always performs at a high level," Carter said. "He gets treated the same as everyone else because he acts like everyone else. … That's a compliment to Nathan and the type of person he is.

"I've never had to coach in a situation like this, but if every kid handled themselves like Nathan … it's just unbelievable."

Elaine Goad, a fourth-grade teacher at Davidson Academy and mother of Ryan Goad, a teammate and friend of Nathan's, also has high praise for the left fielder.

"This young man has shown a great amount of faith during this trying time in his life," Goad said.

In the beginning, Nathan didn't think much about the disease, firmly believing he could beat it. But then the reality of his situation hit home when radiation treatments took a toll. He would take the treatments on weekdays and still go to school.

"It (radiation) does make you really tired. … It drains you. It also changes your taste buds. Your favorite foods just don't taste the same. Thankfully, that's finally going away," Nathan said.

His friends and teammates said finding out about the cancer was probably harder on them because Nathan was so nonchalant about it.

"He really didn't seem all that affected by it. He was just like Nathan," said David Roehrig, 17.

Taylor Hudson, 18, said, "When we first found out we didn't know what to expect. And then we worried that our power-hitting left fielder wouldn't be here anymore. It really hasn't seemed to affect him."

Mac Swann, 18, joked that any pain he may feel physically has been put in perspective since Nathan's battle with cancer.

"He's doing better than me right now," Swann said, whose knee was giving him some pain at baseball practice recently. "It makes our problems not so bad."

The team has rallied around Nathan, showing its support by wearing the familiar yellow bracelets that promote cancer awareness.

Nathan must guard health

Nathan is in remission now, but he must have PET scans monthly to make sure the cancer doesn't come back. A PET, or Positron Emission Tomography, scan involves injecting a form of sugar containing a small amount of radioactivity into the blood. The sugar collects in cancer cells, and a camera detects the radioactivity and shows the areas of cancer in the body.

During last week's practice, Nathan wore a different shirt from his teammates, light gray instead of dark maroon, to help deflect the sun's powerful rays. It's just one precaution he can take to fight the disease, along with eating more healthy foods and getting more exercise.

The disease might have struck at him, but Nathan's plans are to knock the disease out of the park by not giving up and going on with his life.

An outsider might get uncomfortable listening to Nathan's friends talk to him, calling him "cancer boy," making light of his condition, but that person wouldn't know these guys. It's all gentle ribbing, good-natured prodding at a friend with a problem. It's how they get by.

"It's funny, but I think cancer actually brings you closer to your friends," Nathan said.

Contact Lea Ann Overstreet at or 259-8205.

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