LANCASTER COUNTY - He told his parents on Thanksgiving weekend that he was having discomfort in his groin. He found out on Christmas Eve he would need chemotherapy to battle testicular cancer, not the kind of holiday season you expect when you`re a high school senior.
Graduation day for Manheim Township's 2019 senior class is less than a month away. Zach Johnson never dreamed he`d have to climb such a big hurdle in order to walk across the stage. Diagnosed with testicular cancer in December, he`s met the challenge with courage and humor. While his top priority is of course to keep the cancer from growing inside his own body, he is already spreading the word of prevention to help other young men.
"Obviously cancer is a big thing in America and society but I never thought it would happen to me," said Johnson.
"All pediatric cancer is rare, testicular cancer is no exception," explained Dr. Dan McKeone, Pediatric Oncologist at Penn State Hershey. "Teenage years in general are tough, we all remember what high school is like and having to go through a cancer diagnosis and treatment is not easy."
It`s not easy to go through and for most teenage boys, it`s not easy to talk about. Zach was an exception. He knew something was wrong and didn`t hesitate to let his parents know.
"He didn`t really describe it at first as pain, he just said it was uncomfortable when he was putting on a tight pair of jeans or something like that," said his Mom Joan Johnson.
"It wasn`t going away so I decided to tell my parents about it and so when I told them, we waited a week to see if it would go away and then we decided to call our doctor and schedule an appointment," said Zach.
"We went to the pediatrician first and he said no, you need to go see a urologist. When we got in to see the urologist, as Zach said, he immediately said after looking at the ultrasound, there`s no way to sugar coat this, it`s cancer."
"Me and my Mom kind of looked at each other when he told us. It`s just kind of something that is super shocking, you don`t really know how to respond because it`s something that you don`t think you are going to hear."
What happened next was intense treatment. A few days after the diagnosis, Zach underwent surgery to remove one of his testicles.
"When we diagnose leukemia, we use a bone marrow biopsy and we pull the bone marrow out and we look at it under a microscope to make a diagnosis," said Dr. McKeone. For something like testicular cancer, if you try to use a needle, you can contaminate the remainder of the scrotum with cancer cells and that would automatically increase the stage and technically make it more difficult to treat."
A CAT scan revealed the cancer had spread, chemotherapy was now necessary.
"It was a 3-drug cocktail over nine weeks, three cycles," detailed Zach. "The first week of each cycle was five days in the hospital, in-patient. Those were three of the drugs, one of them was every Tuesday and the other two were just in the hospital an hour each night. So that went on for three weeks, and that was three times."
His body responded well, he was very tired but not nauseous. The other good news, a window of opportunity to play volleyball in his final season with the Blue Streaks for a few weeks.
"It`s pretty cool, he hasn`t had a lot of time to practice but I was able to see him at a scrimmage," exclaimed his friend Tyler Vicidomini. "He`s definitely having fun and that`s all I want to see him do."
He`s having fun and sharing plenty of laughs with his friends over the situation. Zach says a positive attitude and sense of humor are really important.
"Some people may think that making jokes about cancer is bad but to me, being funny about it and making sure you can laugh about is really good."
He shared one of his new nicknames.
"The nickname One Ball Johnson, that`s what they call me now which is very tasteful. I think it`s really funny, it`s all in good humor, which is good."
Zach`s been heralded many times for speaking up about his pain. It`s one thing to discuss this stuff with your parents and friends. It`s quite another to sit in front of a camera and share intimate details with our viewers. So the question I posed to Zach is why go public with your privates?
"It`s very important to raise awareness about things like this and that it can happen to anybody, even a young, athletic healthy person. It`s not just for overweight, unhealthy smokers or something like that, it`s really important that everybody needs to be checking for it, maybe like once a week or once a month. It`s super important because it can happen to anybody and you need to be looking out for yourself and others too."