How did teenager Noah Zierfus stay grounded in the face of a cancer diagnosis? With his perfect trifecta of family, friends, and football.
The Springfield, Vermont native was a junior in high school when he noticed he had something like a cyst. The doctors told him it was nothing at first, but Noah and his family weren’t so sure.
A year and two more visits to the doctor later, high school senior Noah got the call: He had testicular cancer. He was in surgery a week later.
From June to October of 2020, Noah’s days were filled with chemotherapy rounds, weeklong surgeries, and countless long drives to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center from Vermont.
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As a longtime lover of sports who was set to play football for Castleton University, Noah found one hardship during his treatments to stand out a little more than the others: sitting down.
“During my surgeries, there would be times where I couldn’t even leave my bed. So the hardest part for me is not moving, because I just have to move,” Noah said. “It was just really hard for me to just sit back.”
Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s treat testicular tumors often with surgery and sometimes with chemotherapy. Whether or not the patient receives both surgery and chemotherapy will depend on the tumor’s size, location, and spread.
Noah needed two very complicated surgeries, which relied on the expertise and experience of two different groups of surgeons at Dana-Farber: pediatric urologists and pediatric oncologic surgeons.
“Testicular cancer requires multidisciplinary input,” says Noah’s doctor Lindsay Frazier, MD, of the Pediatric Solid Tumor Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. “In Noah’s case, which had unusual features, I also relied on my colleagues in genitourinary oncology at Dana-Farber. That is one of the real advantages of being at Dana-Farber: We can truly practice across the typical divide between pediatrics and medical oncology — since it just requires a walk across the bridge. We are uniquely poised to be practitioners of adolescent and young adult oncology at Dana-Farber.”
Many patients in the middle of chemotherapy might not muster up the energy to get back into the routine of their daily lives. But when Noah could manage and was cleared by his care team, he was right back on the field.
“I played football throughout the fall practices and everything while going through chemo,” Zierfus said. “I only missed the last three weeks because I had to get my other surgery done.”
Due to COVID-19, Noah’s college team only practiced without playing any actual games, but that didn’t matter to Noah, who viewed football and the community of his team as a sanctuary.
“When I first showed up there, I was bald and everything because of chemo, but none of my teammates said anything,” Noah recalled about starting his college practices. “Even after I told them they still treated me like one of the guys.”
“If I didn’t have football, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am because it just kept me in shape and just kept me going,” he says.
Despite the intense treatments and chemotherapy that changed the trajectory of Noah Zierfus’ life, his grounded mindset and kindness remained unassailable. These qualities were never more on display than the moment when Noah was granted a Make-A-Wish.
Instead of asking for something for himself, Noah used his wish to give back to his community through his favorite outlet: sports. He wished for his hometown’s public basketball courts to be refurbished.
At the end of June 2021, Noah got to see the finished courts. He is thrilled about how many sports lovers of all ages will have the opportunity to play on the courts.
As of right now, Noah says he is in the best shape he has been in for a long time.
“I’m not a hundred percent yet, but I’m pretty close,” he says.
Currently off treatment, Noah still gets monthly labs and scans every four months. His sights, however, are concentrated on being present in the moment.
“Cancer made me have a new perspective on stuff, so I’m just trying to cherish what I have at the moment and just do what I can do,” he says. “When your back is against the wall, the only way to go is forward.”