Much like the speedy wide receivers Josh Nolen routinely locked down during his spectacular career as an undersized, tough-as-nails cornerback for Canton’s football program, the cancer that has invaded the 21-year-old’s body is in for a relentless battle.
On June 24, following weeks of experiencing alarming symptoms that were initially misread by medical professionals, Nolen was diagnosed with renal medullary carcinoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that affects the kidneys.
Within days of the daunting diagnosis, Nolen was transported to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, where he undergoes powerful chemotherapy treatments that sap his strength, but can’t lay a finger on his extraordinary mental toughness.
“Every day when I wake up, I tell myself I have to win this day, I have to stay positive,” said Nolen, who is living with an aunt just a few minutes from the cancer center. “It was tough at first, but now I accept what I’m up against and I’m prepared to fight it.
“The doctors have told me I have a lot in my favor, including my age and the fact that I’m physically fit. Attitude is extremely important in beating cancer, but the other two things are probably more important.
“The doctors told me that if the treatments had started even a few days later than they did, I probably wouldn’t have made it. I definitely appreciate the smaller things in life now.”
A few months prior to being diagnosed by doctors at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, Nolen began experiencing persistent pain in his lower-left abdomen.
“The pain was so bad, I was going through three bottles of Aleve a week,” he said. “It got so bad, I finally went in and had it checked out. They told me it was probably a muscle strain, but I told them there’s no way that’s what it was. I’m an athlete and I know what a muscle strain feels like. This was worse.”
A few weeks later, Nolen’s urine was streaked with blood, which prompted another trip to the doctor’s office.
“They told me it was probably just from something I drank,” he said. “When I went in a third time, they told me I had pneumonia.”
Nolen’s condition had deteriorated to such a degree in late June that he could barely roll over in bed without feeling exhausted. He had also lost 10 pounds in just two weeks.
“I finally decided that I had to call U of M,” he said. “I woke up one morning at 7 a.m. so that I could call them as soon as they opened at 7:30. They told me they didn’t have an opening until 3 that day, but I was in such bad shape, I couldn’t wait that long.
“I decided to drive myself [from Canton] to the St. Mary’s Hospital emergency room in Livonia. When I was about five minutes from the hospital, U of M called and told me they could get me in right away.”
Immediately after Nolen informed the U of M doctors of his symptoms, they delivered somber news.
“Basically, they told me they hoped it wasn’t the case, but that they were obligated to tell me that all the signs pointed to kidney cancer,” he said. “I was shocked, but I wasn’t totally surprised because of the way I was feeling.”
After undergoing several tests and scans that morning, Nolen returned home.
“About 15 minutes after I was home, the doctor called and said I had to get back to the hospital ASAP,” he recalled. “They had found a mass on my kidney and several small masses on my lungs.”
The chemicals that are pumped into Josh Nolen’s blood stream during his once-every-three-weeks chemothrerapy treatments in Houston are both allies and enemies, hope-instillers and energy-drainers, as they destroy both bad and healthy blood cells.
Following his first chemotherapy treatment at the Anderson Cancer Center, Nolen was able to ride close to five miles on a stationary bike at a nearby YMCA.
However, that wasn’t the case in the wake of his second treatment, which was delayed 36 hours by the discovery of a blood clot in his left arm and the onset of an upper-respiratory infection.
“After my second chemo treatment, I couldn’t take a step without stopping to rest,” he revealed.
Nolen’s condition has since stabilized, he added.
“If you had called me seven days ago, I probably wouldn’t have been strong enough to talk to you,” he said during a Friday afternoon phone interview. “I feel stronger now.”
Nolen said his spirits have remained strong thanks in part to the support offered by his former Canton football teammates and coaches.
With an eye on earning a bachelor’s degree in finance at Western Michigan University next spring, Nolen has enrolled in online courses for the upcoming semester.
“Hopefully, if all goes well, I’m planning on being able to attend classes in person for the second semester,” he said, his voice strong and assured.
A GoFundMe account has been established to help Nolen handle the onslaught of expenses that have piled up during his battle.
To make a donation to the account, visit: http://www.gofundme.com/joshuanolen.