On Tuesday morning, the Westside High (Anderson, S.C.) football team gathered in its weight room. However, the Rams weren’t there to work out.
They came together to send off their teammate Malik Stowers, who was set to receive his prognosis from doctors after having surgery to remove the cancer in his salivary glands.
Later that day, as the Stowers family drove down to Charleston, there was a sense of worry in almost everyone, except Malik.
“I had a good feeling,” Stowers said. “I had a feeling that everything was over with and that I started to feel like I was getting back to normal.”
On May 1, Stowers was diagnosed with cancer. On Tuesday, he was pronounced cancer-free.
“This whole process has brought us closer together as a family,” said Nemesha Stowers, Malik’s mother. “You have to live like it’s your last day, be humble and be glad that you’re here.”
Malik Stowers was in Stage 2 of acinic cell carcinoma, a rare form of cancer in the salivary glands. It affects the parotid glands, the largest salivary glands just in front of the ears.
According to Mayo Clinic, 85 percent of tumors occur in the parotid gland; only 25 percent are cancerous. According to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, acinic cell carcinoma represents approximately 10 percent of salivary gland tumors, with more women affected than men and an average age of diagnosis of 44 years old. Stowers is 16.
In the face of adversity, Westside High and the Anderson community rallied around Malik and his family.
Shirts labeled “Malik Strong” were made and sold for his support. The AVID program, in which Stowers is a member, held “Malik Stowers Day” and a GoFundMe account was created and raised more than $4,000 for his family to help cover expenses.
“We just want to thank the community for all of the prayers, encouraging words and donations,” Nemesha Stowers said.
Malik dealt well with the waiting during the weeks leading up to his surgery June 10; enduring the post-surgery side effects was a more difficult challenge.
“I felt bad, “Malik Stowers siad. “I just felt like I couldn’t do anything for myself. It wasn’t a good feeling. I even broke down a couple of times, but I’m here now so it’s good.”
Stowers has lost some weight since the surgery, and he said he has a small, permanent indentation on his face where the mass was removed. There is slight nerve damage to one of his lips as well. All the while, Nemesha Stowers was there to comfort her son, cry with him and let him know that everything was going to be OK.
“I prayed over him, but I felt helpless because there was nothing I could do to take the pain away,” she said. “We just tried to get through it together because when he’s hurting, I’m hurting too.”
On the other side of Malik’s pain rests a clean bill of health. And what comes with that is the green light to return to the sport he loves.
He has been around the football team as much as possible and has been able to participate in workouts and watch practices.
His presence has inspired the team, and his return will continue to ignite the Rams’ flame.
“We feel like a miracle has taken place and our prayers were answered,” Rams coach Scott Earley said. “That good news is inspiring, but it’s a reminder of how fragile life really is, and you just got to go out and play like it’s your last day and live like that as well.”
The Rams are off this week; they’ll begin working out again for three weeks, followed by another off week from July 29 to Aug. 1, with fall camp beginning on Aug. 2. If all goes according to plan, Stowers expects to be working out with the team and to be ready for the start of fall practice.
Stowers describes himself at 60 percent as far as strength, but said he’s 100 percent ready to get back to the summer grind with his team.
“It’s going to be a lot of great energy,” Stowers said. “We’re all going to be back and having fun again. Physically, it’ll hurt some because we do a lot of stuff, but I’ll get through it.”
Stowers said he is done with medical treatments but will continue to get periodic evaluations.
He’ll return to Charleston in six months for a follow-up visit, and from there he’ll rotate between Anderson and Greenville every three months for checkups. For now, Stowers and his family are focused on getting back to a normal routine. A celebratory vacation is in the works.
He and his family have a lot to reflect on as their turbulent journey comes to an end. Nemesha Stowers said she would like it if they can be an example of hope and triumph for any other family who is in a similar situation.
“Cancer is something I don’t want anyone to go through, and it was a learning process for us,” Nemesha Stowers said. “Just take things day-by-day and get regular doctor exams. If you feel like something is abnormal get it checked out. But above all, stay strong and don’t give up.”