For Mike Bowers, it all started when he was on the wrestling mat.
Bowers, a 5-foot-10 senior at Winters Mill, started to notice he was struggling to breathe during wrestling matches his junior year. A competitor who was known for being able to outlast opponents, Bowers all of a sudden was struggling to get through an entire match.
It was a puzzling situation for Falcons head wrestling coach John Lowe. Bowers had enjoyed a breakout sophomore season in which he qualified to compete at the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletics Association Class 2A/1A West region for the individual state tournament.
Now all of a sudden, he had taken a step back.
"He was spotty, really spotty, and we kept asking each other what was wrong with him," Lowe said. "He's a no give up kind of guy. If you put him in against anyone, he would scrap. To see him struggling as a junior, we knew something was wrong"
After getting pinned by an opponent he had beaten previously, Bowers went to see a doctor in March 2015 to get some answers.
"I went to an ear, nose and throat specialist, and he recognized it," Bowers said. "He was the one that initiated all the tests. One thing led to another, and I got a biopsy, which led to it."
The diagnosis was Stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma. In other words, cancer.
Remarkably, the news didn't rattle Bowers. He'd had a lump on his throat that wouldn't go away, which he had been suspicious of for some time.
The good news was the cancer was treatable, which was all Bowers needed to hear.
The Bowers family began to tell the school community about Mike's condition, which led to an immediate outreach of support. The school is familiar with the experience. Last July, a student, Jake Offutt, tragically lost his battle with brain cancer. More recently, Seth Budai, one of the school's counselors, also passed away from cancer.
Before he became ill, Bowers was a three-sport athlete at Winters Mill, playing wide receiver and safety for the football team in the fall, wrestling in the winter and playing midfield for the Falcons' lacrosse team in the spring. The parents from all three teams contributed to a sign-up sheet put together by wrestling parent Allison Blessing to provide the Bowers family with dinner on a week-by-week basis when Mike was doing his chemotherapy treatments.
That made a big impression on Matt Bowers, Mike's father.
"The outpouring of support was amazing," Matt Bowers said. "It tells you what kind of kid Mike is -- smart, fun and outgoing to his circle of friends. It's just amazing that people think that highly of him and our family."
Accepting the support was something Mike Bowers struggled with, however. Throughout the whole process, Bowers was determined to not complain or feel sorry for himself, so accepting the generosity of others was hard.
As time passed though, Bowers learned that it was OK to accept the help. It's one of the biggest lessons he's taken away from the whole ordeal.
"It might be tough, but don't be afraid to lean on other people, because it's OK for them to be there for you," Bowers said of what his first piece of advice would be to someone who has been diagnosed with cancer.
As his fight went on, there were a lot of changes to his everyday life. Bowers was lethargic, didn't hang out with friends as much and spent a lot of time in bed. In order to keep up with his schoolwork, he was home-schooled through a service specifically geared toward helping kids battling cancer.
The toughest part was his first round of chemo. Bowers said it was a horrendous experience, but one he was able to battle through.
"It was the only time I threw up, but I just felt terrible the first time. I just kind of closed my eyes and waited for it to end," Bowers said. "Then I showed up the next day to chemo and just went with the flow."
Through those many years of playing sports, Bowers has learned a lot of lessons, many of which helped him in his new fight.
"Sports teach you right from wrong, as well as to be tough and to keep going no matter what," Bowers said.
The chemo began to work, and Bowers' body started to win the fight. He got the good news on Aug. 10, 2015, his birthday, that his battle with cancer had finally ended, and that he had won.
Despite the great news about his cancer going into remission, Bowers still had a long way to go to work his way back to being able to play sports, which he said was tougher than his fight against cancer.
There was no way he could play football in the fall, but he still hoped to wrestle in the winter. On the wrestling mat, Bowers found that his old style would no longer work because of the toll the cancer had taken on his body.
"I used to always try to muscle people, but after going through this, you lose your muscular endurance," Bowers said. "I was constantly struggling. You can never breathe right, and you feel like you can do it, but your body says, ‘No.‘"
Bowers kept at it, though, and began to base his strategy around being a more technical wrestler. After an injury to Cherokee Johnson, the Falcons' starting 152-pound wrestler, there was an opportunity for Bowers to get back into a competitive match Feb. 3. Winters Mill had two teams it was competing against that day, meaning Bowers would have the chance to wrestle twice.
He won his first match, 9-0, against Noah Berman of Liberty High School.
"I had a nice takedown in the third period to go up 9-0. I felt pretty good," Bowers said. "It was pretty emotional. My dad hugged me right after it, and everyone in the stands was excited."
Bowers lost his second match to South Carroll's Shane Conners, Carroll County's all-time leader in career wins.
"That didn't go as well," Bowers said with a laugh.
That loss is the smallest detail of that day, though. Matt Bowers still struggles to describe watching his son get back on the wrestling mat.
"I was happy as heck, just an indescribable emotion," Matt Bowers said.
One year after getting diagnosed, Mike Bowers is back to the normalcy of being a senior in high school. He's excited to play his final high school lacrosse season and for all the festivities the last few months of high school bring. He has also been accepted to college but is still deciding where he wants to go, and he plans to play lacrosse at the next level.
Even though Bowers is the same kid, both Lowe and Matt Bowers have noticed a slight change about him since beating cancer.
"I don't know if you've ever run across someone who you just know is a lot wiser in the ways of the world. Mike is like that," Lowe said. "He's kind of at ease. He's always smiled, but now it's almost like he understands the world a lot better in ways we never will."
Issue 219: March 2016