It started with back pain, not completely uncommon for any athlete let alone a high school basketball player in the midst of a long season.
But when Cameron Thorn could hardly stand up straight from the pain, he decided to find out what exactly was going on within his body.
That decision to seek a doctor’s opinion in Feb., 2012, might have saved his life. A CT scan revealed a mass; an MRI led to a biopsy, which revealed the cancer that led to some anxious moments for Thorn and his family and an extended stay at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis.
A year later, the Wilson High School senior has rebounded from the cancer scare and his high school basketball career is winding down as area tournaments tip off. That he made it back to play at all is somewhat of a miracle, given that his St. Jude stay was estimated to last as long as eight months.
Instead, a determined Thorn, who said he relied on his faith, was home in 41/2 months and back on the court for the start of the season.
The initial cancer diagnosis caught the Thorn family unprepared.
“It stunned me for a minute,” Thorn said. “I thought only old people got that, but I’ve always been raised right. I’ve been raised in church and I knew I was going to a better place. ‘You can all overcome all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ It’s the verse I stood on; it’s the verse on my bracelet. I was a worship leader in church. The night I first started having pain I had just got done leading worship. I went off the stage and went to the hospital that night.”
Thorn also said he didn’t question why cancer invaded his body.
“I don’t know why this happened but I know it will be used for his glory through whole thing. That might sound crazy but I told my parents that when this is all said and done, I’m going to be able to encourage people all over the world by my story and by the fact that I can stay on my feet and keep going.”
Cameron’s mom, Leslie, said her first reaction to what turned out to be a tricky diagnosis was to not show emotion no matter what her feelings were.
“Cancer is a scary word, and you don’t want to scare your child,” she said. “Never once were we thinking that this was the end of the world. Instead, we looked at it as we know what’s causing your pain, we can go on to the next step of getting treatment and do whatever it takes to get you taken care of. The uncertainty was the hardest part.”
Within 48 hours after a biopsy revealed the cancer, Cameron was bound for an extended stay in Memphis and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Doctors initially were stumped at the type of cancer Thorn had contracted. Dr. Hiroto Inaba said cancer cells had signs of both Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, an unusual occurrence in children. Although both have a high cure rate, treatment for each is different.
“He had features of both types, and that made our discussion of treatment more intense,” he said. “I’m confident we made the right decision on the treatment.”
That treatment was five rounds of chemotherapy, including two Thorn said are called the “atomic bomb” — high doses of chemo.”
“They hit me hard with that,” Cameron said. “It was just chemotherapy, though. They didn’t have to do radiation, thank God.”
During treatment, Cameron lost his hair and about 26 pounds from his 6-foot-1, 160-pound frame. Normally outgoing, during treatment he was often reserved.
“I bonded with a few people there but most of the time I wanted to keep to myself,” he said. “Most of the time you are in so much pain that you are not in the mood to deal with other people. I even said some things to my parents that probably shouldn’t have been said, but you don’t think about those things when you are hurting so bad.
“It was tough being up there because you have the mindset that nobody knows what you are going through but everybody (at St. Jude) knows what you are going through. Most of the people that were there are young children. That to me was harder than anything, seeing little kids walking around in a lot worse pain than I was. I had something to look forward to. I could have been worse.”
The second treatment, one of the atomic bombs, took a toll. At one point, Leslie said, doctors were concerned he might not make it through the night because Cameron developed an infection and a high fever.
“It took him to his deathbed,” she said. “He didn’t talk for two days. He was just laying there. He wouldn’t eat or drink; he had sores all over his mouth and body. He lost his hair. It was a scary time, but the doctors and nurses remained optimistic and positive the whole time. Cameron was very strong. He refused to give up.”
Inaba, his doctor, agreed.
“Kids are amazing,” he said. “Cameron had a very strong baseline. Chemo is very tough but he was very active before and after.”
Leslie rarely strayed far from the hospital and their accommodations at Target House, an apartment-style complex that provides a home away from home for St. Jude patients. Cameron stayed there as well when not hospitalized during his chemotherapy treatments. Family and friends visited often. Leslie said the support she received from her colleagues at Forest Hills Elementary School where she teaches physical education, other teachers around the area and the community in general, who raised money, provided meals, prayers and other services, was unbelievable.
The experience also brought the family closer, including her relationship with Cameron.
“We’ve always been close as a family, but we’re closer now than we ever have been,” Leslie said of her three daughters, husband Keith and Cameron. “Cameron and I butted heads before. He kept me at arms length because I was his mom trying to get into his business. That has totally changed after going through this.”
Basketball played an important role in Cameron’s recovery, providing motivation to return to the court. His goal was to get back to his teammates earlier than expected.
“I knew I’d be back on the floor, but that it would take a lot of hard work and effort,” Cameron said. “Cancer wasn’t going to stop me from getting back on the floor. We (Wilson) had a tough year last year. I wanted to get some revenge on a lot of teams.”
Cameron said he predicted he wouldn’t have to stay the anticipated eight months at St. Jude.
“I told them I would be home for summer,” he said. “Dr. Inaba said that was impossible.”
One day in early June and after completing five rigorous rounds of chemotherapy, Inaba entered Cameron’s room.
“He said, ‘No more chemo,’ ” Cameron recalled. The cancer was gone.
“It was surreal,” Leslie said. “I don’t know how to describe that feeling. It’s like, ‘Are you sure we’re done? What does it mean now?’ ” By late summer, Cameron was back in the school gym shooting hoops, working out and getting ready for the season.
Wilson principal Gary Horton remembers stopping by school one afternoon last summer.
“I noticed a vehicle in front of the gym and the doors were propped open,” Horton said. “I walked in and saw coach (Jeremy) Pounders in there and Cameron was shooting. It was amazing. He had everything under control.”
“When I got back on the court, I knew it wasn’t my time to go,” Cameron said. “This is where I belong.”
Cameron returns to St. Jude in late March for a one-year checkup. All indications are he remains cancer free.
“We are back 100 percent as you can be,” Leslie said. “It’s always in the back of your mind. We want to be sure that we don’t forget this great blessing that we have been given as a family.”