No amount of words on a page could ever do justice to the journey that Whitley County senior Jared Wilson has been on since the 2018-19 school year began back in August. No amount of words, no matter how carefully or thoughtfully strung together, could ever adequately describe the broad range of emotion that he has experienced, or properly convey the struggle that he has had to endure to get to this point. Jared’s incredible story is one that is definitely worth telling, however, so the following words will attempt to do just that, even though they are likely to fall short.
Coming into this past school year, Wilson was just like most other high school seniors. He was concerned with his classes, running cross country and having fun with his friends during his final days as a Whitley County Colonel. However, things took a very abrupt turn for the worse when he received an earth shattering diagnosis of stage 4 testicular cancer.
“It really took me by surprise,” said Wilson. “I hadn’t had any issues until my stomach started hurting, then I was blindsided by the diagnosis. I like to make plans. I had all these plans for the school year, but then we’re suddenly having to rush to the hospital. I’m not going to lie… I was very scared.”
Wilson’s frightening diagnosis came, amazingly, on the very first day of school. He had been present for a half day, leaving around lunchtime for a previously scheduled doctor’s appointment. It was not long after that he and his family got the shocking news that not only did he have an advanced form of cancer, but that it had also already spread to his lungs, abdomen and neck.
For Wilson, this was just the beginning of an unbelievable process. A process that ultimately led to him defeating a life-threatening disease, returning to school, attending his senior prom, addressing his classmates at this past Sunday’s commencement ceremonies at the Corbin Arena and getting accepted to attend college at Princeton University beginning later this summer.
“I had to take each day one at a time,” Wilson explained. “I wasn’t sure if I would be able to survive this or not. In most cases stage 4 is fatal, but I wanted to keep fighting for myself, and for everyone that I knew was supporting me. I was exhausted each and every day, but I wanted to still get out of the bed, and try to do the most that I could.”
Throughout Wilson’s difficult road to recovery, the local community rallied around him. Benefit 5k races were organized, as were yard sales, concerts and other charity events. “Team Jared” t-shirts and wristbands could be seen all over town in Williamsburg, Corbin and surrounding communities. Cross country teams in neighboring counties were regularly presenting Colonels head coach David Lennon with monetary donations that they had collected in order to help with medical costs. The amount of prayers and well wishes was truly staggering.
“The support has been phenomenal,” said Wilson. “Community is all about helping each other out when we are weak. It has really touched me, and I want everyone to know that every helping hand has been a blessing.”
Throughout treatments, surgeries and some unfortunate complications that resulted in an extended hospital stay to treat sepsis, Wilson never lost his positive attitude. Even in the darkest of times, he remained focused on getting better, and moving on with his life. Eventually, his fighting spirit and relentless pursuit of better days ahead got him to where he wanted to be… home. Back with his family, back with his friends and back to the business of making an impact as one of the most all-around impressive student-athletes to ever grace the halls of Whitley County High School.
Not only is Wilson currently cancer free and making plans to leave Williamsburg for New Jersey to begin the next chapter of his life as a student at one of the most prestigious Ivy League schools in the country, he is doing so as one of the most decorated Colonels in school history.
In addition to running cross country and track, Wilson was also a member of the WCHS golf team before he was sidelined with his illness. He was a member of the academic team, and served as senior class president. He was also vice president of Educators Rising, and president of the Kentucky Junior Historical Society. Additional accolades include president of the National Honors Society and secretary of the BETA Club, and oh yeah, before he got sick he was also in the process of putting together what he called an “advisory council to the superintendent” that would be responsible for presenting concerns of students to the Board of Education.
What does a young man like this go to college to study, you might ask? To be a nuclear physicist, of course. And no, that is not sarcasm.
“When I was first diagnosed, I wasn’t thinking about college,” Wilson said. “I almost didn’t apply at all, but my teachers, my parents and my doctors all encouraged me to do it. It took me a little longer to get all of my stuff in, and I didn’t really expect what happened. When I learned that I had been accepted to Princeton, it was just a great moment.”
Obviously, there is no shortage of people who will be quick to praise Wilson for everything that he has accomplished, in spite of the overwhelming odds against him. Included in that list is Whitley County Schools Superintendent John Siler.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” said Siler. “The battle that he has been through, the character and the attitude that he has shown, it has all been so inspiring for everyone in the community. It’s amazing, and it speaks volumes about his faith, his family and the type of person that he is. If everyone had the kind of outlook that he does, how much better would this world be?”
Coach David Lennon added, “Jared is incredibly tough mentally both as a runner, and as an individual. That mental toughness gave him the strength to fight through this. Even though he wasn’t running with us this year, he was still with us. Even in his absence, he provided such strong leadership, and he was really an inspiration to me personally.”
Finally, WCHS Principal Bob Lawson said of Wilson, “He is certainly a testament to strength of spirit and character. He always kept a positive outlook, and a good attitude. I give a lot of credit to the job that this young man’s family did in raising him. He has been an inspiration to us all.”
“This was nothing short of a miracle from the Lord,” Lawson concluded. “A lot of prayers have been answered, and it has just been very inspiring to see an entire community united in prayer like they have been for him.”
“It has been a rough journey,” Wilson said when asked to reflect back on all that has transpired over the last ten months. “But I think it has also been very positive. Such an experience humbles an individual, and it has motivated me to help others that are going through what I have. I have made a lot of connections, and I want to continue to use those to help in any way that I can.”
Wilson will continue to see doctors every three months moving forward. If he stays in the clear for an entire year, he will only have to receive check-ups every six months. If everything is still looking good after three more years, he can begin yearly visits.
“I am super-thankful to have had the experiences that I’ve had in the last few weeks,” Wilson said of being able to make it back home and back to school before the end of the 2018-19 school year. “The fact that I got to have a few days of my senior year after everything that I’ve been through was one of the best feelings in the world. To be able to see all of my friends, and to just enjoy some normalcy.”
Bonus Content: Full transcript of Jared Wilson’s speech at the Whitley County High School commencement ceremony – Sunday, June 2, 2019
Today is a day we will never forget. Today we will walk across this stage, receive our diplomas, and conclude our passage as students of the Whitley County school system. One last time we will gather together to celebrate all that we have enjoyed and experienced during the past four years. The bonds we have formed, the knowledge we have gained, the feats we have accomplished, and the trials we have faced will all be etched into our minds. For each of us, however, certain memories hold great power. They are the ones that shape our perspectives, the ones that make us who we are. They are our defining moments. These crucial periods in our lives teach us valuable lessons, ones that enable or cripple us depending on how we react to them. I have experienced several defining moments during my time in Whitley County, but none as influential as my most recent, one that began just before the start of my senior year.
I’m a planner. I find joy in organizing my life before it happens. I have an agenda filled with months of written schedules. Each day is split into fifteen-minute time slots: Breakfast six thirty, go to the store at nine forty-five, homework assignments from ten to twelve, down time starting at seven. Each moment is plastered onto the pages of my blue leather notebook before it ever happens. I once had this idea that, if I planned everything out, I would be able to cut down on wasted time and get more work accomplished. That’s when the agenda surfaced. It worked for a while, too. But I forgot to consider the simple fact that some things happen whether they are planned or not.
On August 27, 2018, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. By the time the doctors found it, it had spread far from its source. A large mass engulfed my abdomen and constricted my vital organs. Large nodules littered both my lungs. The disease kept growing and spreading, inching its way up my neck and spinal cord. Without treatment, the cancer would soon find its way to my brain. I could die before my eighteenth birthday.
Suddenly those plans of mine fell apart. No more cross country, no more golf, no more academic team, no more going to school, no more Friday night football games, no more pep rallies, no more random screaming in the hallway, no more going to the movies, no more pickup basketball with my friends, no more wild ventures, no more college anticipations. All of it, shattered by my diagnosis. I would be spending my last year of high school without ever stepping foot inside the high school.
A new type of schedule formed. My chemotherapy regimen came in three-week cycles. I received three hours of it five days in a row in the beginning, then I came back to the hospital on days eight and fifteen for overnight stays. I always felt fine in the beginning, started feeling weak at day five, got a fever at day eight, and finally started feeling better by day eighteen or nineteen. Then day twenty-one hit and I started all over again.
Chemo quickly laid waste to my body. It stripped me of my hair, ate away at my muscles, drained me of my energy, and destroyed my immune system. I couldn’t stay outside long for fear of sickness or sunburn. I felt trapped, cheated of the life I thought I deserved.
Then I opened my eyes. I was at the best pediatric cancer center in the country. The best doctors, the best researchers, the best treatment plans, the best technology, and the best nurses. And I began my treatment in excellent condition. I had a fighting chance in a situation where many others would not have.
Near the end of my first cycle, I was given permission to attend a football game at my high school. It would be the first time I went into public since my diagnosis. I never could have anticipated what I saw when my parents dropped me off in front of the field.
Everywhere I looked, people had on shirts and wristbands sporting “Team Jared” or “Fear Not,” referencing my favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 41:10. The entire football team had on these shirts during their warmup routine. People came up to me throughout the game and told me they were praying for me. They offered support in any way they could give it. Friends, family, teachers, and absolute strangers did everything they could to make my experience a little easier.
A few months later, I had a particularly hard day at Cincinnati Children’s. I had just moved from the intensive care unit to the surgery floor and was going on six weeks without ever leaving the hospital. I was homesick, tired, and frustrated that, after weeks of physical therapy, my legs were still too weak for me to walk. Everywhere I went I had to go in a wheelchair. My nurse noticed how upset I was and challenged me to a wheelchair race. I thought it was a joke. Sure enough, she came back to my room later that day with a wheelchair of her own. We lined up at the end of the hallway and waited for the signal. Another nurse at the other end yelled “go!” and we took off. It was a tight race until the end; then she slacked off and let me win. The race was a lot of fun and left me in a much better mood than the one I had started in. With a simple act of kindness, she had turned one of my worst days into one of my best.
There are so many more stories just like those. I met dozens of wonderful people throughout my journey and had countless joyful experiences to go along with the bad ones. I became a happier and humbler person and realized the power of a helping hand. I even got to finish out the final days of high school with my classmates. All of it became a crucial part of my life story. None of it had been planned.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of planning. I still have my little blue agenda book. I use it every single day. It’s part of who I am, and nothing is going to change that about me. My point is this: life is unpredictable. Things seldom work out exactly the way you expect them to. Admittedly, some of the worst things in life are unplanned. I never expected to get diagnosed with cancer. I never expected to miss my entire senior year. I never expected to fight for my life at such a young age. But I’ll tell you something else. Some of the best things in life are unplanned. I never expected to find so much good in a bad situation. I never expected to gain so much support from my community. And I never expected I would survive to tell my story.
Everything happens for a reason. We may not always understand why things turn out the way they do, but that’s not always a bad thing. So, whoever you are and wherever life takes you, don’t get so caught up in keeping your own plans that you fail to recognize the bigger picture. Circumstances happen the way they are supposed to. In the end, you may realize they work out better than you ever could have predicted.