`You always expect the unexpected from them,' says Nate Madaj, with his brother, Wes, left, and some of the other students at Lima Central Catholic High School who have shaved their heads in support of Nate.
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LIMA, Ohio - Nate Madaj always knew he had a great group of friends, but he found out just how much they cared when chemotherapy caused his hair to fall out.
A couple of days after Mr. Madaj, 18, shaved the rest of his hair, three of his close friends showed up at his door sporting huge grins and bald heads. They hoped to catch him by surprise, but they couldn't pull one over on their longtime friend.
“You always expect the unexpected from them because they're always there for you,” Mr. Madaj said.
Now, about 30 of Lima Central Catholic High School's 430 students have shaved their heads in support for their classmate and friend.
“It's a physical sign of support you can give him,” classmate Alex Collins said.
“It means a lot,” Mr. Madaj said.
Those simple words come from the heart of this unassuming senior honor student battling the fight of his life against Hodgkin's lymphoma. The varsity point guard known for being a quiet leader on and off the basketball court is taking this challenge in stride - confident and quiet - just like his personality, coach and guidance counselor Bob Seggerson said.
“In the face of this obstacle, he stared it down. He continues to do this. That's why I'm very confident that he's going to beat this,” Mr. Seggerson said.
In early February, Mr. Madaj was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma after a lump in his neck was sent for biopsy. Everyone was shocked to learn he had cancer and it had advanced to Stage 3, meaning it spread below his neck.
“I didn't really have any of the symptoms except my Mom noticed the lump in my neck,” Mr. Madaj said. In a short time, the lump became visible when he turned his head. The doctor told Mr. Madaj it could be cancer, but in all likelihood, in a very early stage since he wasn't tired, had a hearty appetite, and didn't have night sweats.
He's undergone one cycle of chemotherapy. The doctor told him he would undergo six by the end of summer. Already, the lump is noticeably smaller. That's not a surprise to Mr. Madaj or his friends.
“I'm confident. The doctor told me I should be confident,” Mr. Madaj said.
“We know he's going to get through this. Nate's like the strongest-willed kid in our class,” Ben Quatman said.
Sitting among four of his closest friends and teammates, Mr. Madaj's brown eyes are bright as he talks about the cancer, the treatments, his plan to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Toledo, and how one day can change your life.
While tests were being run, Mr. Madaj said little about his ordeal. He prepared himself. He focused. “He played the best basketball of his career,” coach Seggerson said.
“I had to live day by day if I found out it was cancer and not make any big plans,” Mr. Madaj said. “Well, it just made me think every game might be my last one, so it made me play even harder.”
His basketball family, like Mr. Madaj's biological family, rallied their support.
Coach Seggerson told the team the news after an away game when they were praying in the school's chapel, most of them knew.
“Ben and Jason were waiting for me when I got home [from the doctor],” Mr. Madaj said.
“I was just shocked. When I heard the good things about it, how people recover, I was confident. I thought he was too young,” Jason Brackman said.
“We never thought one of our friends would have it, not one of our good friends,” Mr. Quatman said.
Mr. Madaj asked his doctor to postpone treatments until the season's end. They had a good season, because of in part, they say, to their teammate's trial. “We won 10 or 11 straight games,” the coach said.
“It brought us closer together, even closer than before,” Tommy Tebben said.
The season ended at the district semi-finals when they lost to Wayne Trace. Those who knew about the cancer couldn't help thinking it was meant to be that way this year.
“Maybe this is God's way of saying, `Nate's got to get into treatment,'” his coach said.
Treatments began about two weeks ago and have taken a slight toll on Mr. Madaj, though he doesn't complain. “I get really tired.”
After his first cycle of treatments, his friends visited him at home. “Sometimes I'm just sleeping and I'll wake up and they'll be talking,” he said. “They just come over, and I just get cheered up.”
The deep bond among the friends is apparent. What they do - being there, shaving their heads, and cheering up Mr. Madaj - comes naturally for this group that's been friends since about first grade.
“We've always been like a family,” Mr. Collins said. “It takes more than cancer to break us up,” Mr. Tebben said.
The friendship is reciprocal for Mr. Madaj who said he's “kind of” glad he's the one with cancer. “If somebody had to have it, I rather it be me than one of my friends. I don't want to see them struggle through this,'' he said.