Still in the game

Shon Coleman

St. Jude helps football standout Shon Coleman tackle ALL.

It was one of the biggest days of 18-year-old Shon Coleman’s life—the first Wednesday in February 2010, known to college football followers as national signing day. Flanked by five of his high school teammates, Shon sat in his high school’s library at a long, wooden table, dapperly dressed in a suit and tie and proudly wearing an orange Auburn University cap.

Ecstatic coaches, beaming parents, supportive friends and media packed the room to witness the six players sign with their respective schools. With the sound of camera clicks filling his ears, the quiet and introspective high school senior made his decision official—he would continue a 13-year dream of playing football in college and maybe one day professionally. Shon had no reason to think that in less than two months, his football career would be on hold and he would be depending on the world-class treatment and care offered at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to help him tackle the most common form of childhood cancer—acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

ALL-star talent

Shon’s mother, DeKeishia Tunstall, says she never really worried about her son getting hurt from playing football. Always one of the bigger players, he had developed a stoic toughness that benefited him as he matured and as play became more aggressive.

Shon says he enjoys the contact and the knowledge gleaned from playing the game. A skilled left tackle on the offensive line, Shon was responsible for halting opposing defenders in their desperate attempts to bring down the quarterback from the blind side. Shon showed exponential improvement each year of his high school career. He grew to 6-foot-7, 285 pounds by his junior season and was highly sought by some of the nation’s best college football teams. As a senior, he was the top-rated high school football player in Mississippi and the No. 3 offensive lineman in the nation. Shon was also selected to play in several prestigious high school all-star games.

During Shon’s senior season, a mysterious lump appeared on his head. Accustomed to scrapes and bruises, he and his family dismissed it as a minor football injury.

“We thought he had hit someone or something wrong, and then another lump popped up,” DeKeishia says. “We were thinking maybe he was just getting hit in practice, and it wasn’t healing well.”

A game changer

As his senior year of high school progressed, more lumps developed on Shon’s neck, chest and torso. His pediatrician referred Shon to a dermatologist for cosmetic removal of what he believed to be harmless scar tissue. In January 2010—just weeks before signing with Auburn—Shon underwent an ultrasound. The lumps, which contained blood vessels, would need to be removed by a plastic surgeon to prevent scarring.

Shon’s hectic schedule delayed the surgery until March. He and his family were told the operation would be a simple removal of benign tumors composed of fatty tissues. However, during the biopsy, the surgeon was slightly concerned about one of the masses. A week later, the surgeon’s suspicions were confirmed—the lumps were malignant. Clinicians believed Shon had lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the lymphatic cells of the immune system.

“Shon’s reaction was far better than my reaction,” DeKeishia says. “He wasn’t sad. He didn’t cry or anything like that. It was like he immediately knew he’d have to fight. He knew he would get through it, and that’s the way he comforted me.”

While showing a determined resolve to fight the cancer, Shon admits he questioned the idea of whether or not he would ever suit up in a football uniform again.

“I was shocked,” Shon says. “But at the same time, I was worried about everything—about my football career and everything else.”

After being referred to St. Jude by the plastic surgeon, DeKeishia, Shon and his stepfather, Travis Tunstall, drove to the hospital’s campus.

Maintaining focus

With only seven weeks elapsed since the celebratory day in early February, Shon found himself in a hospital room at St. Jude undergoing a blood test to confirm the diagnosis of lymphoma. However, within an hour of his arrival, the test revealed that he had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the white blood cells known as lymphocytes. The following day, a bone marrow aspiration, which involves removing bone marrow from the hip bone, and a lumbar puncture—also known as a spinal tap—confirmed the diagnosis and details about the subtype of ALL.

Shon’s attending physician, Deepa Bhojwani, MD, of St. Jude Oncology recalls the first discussion she had with Shon, his mother and stepfather.

“All three of them were focused. They wanted to figure out what the problem was and deal with it,” Bhojwani says. “Shon didn’t say much at the initial meeting, but he was definitely listening and processing what I was saying. I’m sure getting back to the football field was the biggest question on his mind, but he didn’t bring it up at that first meeting.”

Bhojwani brought up the subject of football, assuring Shon that treatment was a step-by-step process that would proceed depending on how he responded to chemotherapy. She also pointed out during the initial meeting that the treatment of ALL had advanced greatly in the last four decades thanks in large part to St. Jude. When the hospital opened its doors in 1962, the five-year survival rate for children with ALL was 4 percent. Today that number is 94 percent.

Shon was placed on the Total XVI clinical protocol for newly diagnosed leukemia patients up to age 18. Treatment involves three stages: induction, consolidation and continuation. The induction stage requires the most intensive chemotherapy.

“Changes are made according to how a person responds to therapy,” Bhojwani says of the protocol. “We have sensitive methods of measuring this response by minimal residual disease.” Minimal residual disease is the small number of leukemic cells that may survive remission induction therapy.

Shon responded remarkably well to treatment, entering remission with negative minimal residual disease after two weeks. He has completed the first few months of the last phase of treatment, which involves two years of weekly chemotherapy.

Staying strong

The coaching staff at Auburn saved Shon’s scholarship, and his future teammates reached out to him to show support. With his football career delayed, Shon maintained his strength by working out and by going through physical therapy exercises with the St. Jude Rehabilitation Services department. Because of the central line in his chest, he was unable to perform some upper body exercises, but he has kept fit through cardiovascular exercise and moderate strength training.

“We have gotten thousands upon thousands of letters and e-mails,” DeKeishia says. “People from all across the country have reached out just to say they are thinking about him.”

Bolstered by the outpouring of support, Shon is again focused on returning to his dream of being involved in the sport he loves. He recently moved into his dormitory at Auburn and is allowed to participate in conditioning and footwork drills with the team to maintain his fitness. Shon travels to St. Jude one day a week to receive chemotherapy.

“I knew St. Jude would take care of me and everybody would do their best to help me get back to where I need to be,” Shon says. “You’ve got so much hope here, and everybody here is so good to me.”

Reprinted from Promise Winter 2010

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