When Will Cohen learned he had a benign tumor on his lower spine last January, the 15-year-old was more concerned about missing his basketball season than having to undergo a three-and-a-half hour surgery to remove the mass.
Playing sports was everything to him.
But Cohen – a three-sport athlete and freshman at the time – thought if he applied his same hard-working, can-do attitude on the basketball court to his new diagnosis and his surgery, he wouldn’t be benched for long.
“I learned that you must think positively. When I thought positively, I felt more positive results would come,” he said. “Thinking negatively doesn’t do you any good at all. It just makes you sadder about what happened.”
When Will started feeling pain in his lower back, hips and legs, he thought he was having growing pains. So did the adults around him. He stayed active and continued playing sports, kept up with his daily routine and attended school.
But, the pain got worse. Much worse. Will couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t ride in a car without experiencing jolting pain.
“I gotta do something about this. Something is not right,” he thought. “It’s not just growing pains.”
“His doctor knew she was looking at something that was not normal,” said Bob Cohen, Will’s dad. “It was about the worst moment.”
The family huddled in Will’s parents’ room, where they told him about the tumor.
“We knew he had a tumor, but we didn’t know what kind. It was a shock,” Bob said.
Will, however, remained calm, he says. “I just faced (the news),” he said.
Within hours, Will and his parents were at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, where they met with Will’s surgeon, Dr. Mahmoud Nagib. He put his hand on Will and looked at the family, Bob said. He had good news for the family: The tumor was benign, but it needed to be removed.
“That was obviously a big relief, but we knew at the same time we were in for quite a road,” Bob said.
That night, life continued as normally as it could for the Cohen family. They attended a Timberwolves game as planned.
Days later, Will played his first and last basketball game of the season before surgery.
The final score
After eight days in the hospital, Will went home. He missed six weeks of school while he recovered and rehabilitated. Through hard work and dedication, Will was still able to earn the Outstanding Academic Achievement award at Hopkins North Junior High School.
Determined to play sports as soon as possible, Will spent three to four days a week working with a therapist at Lifetime Fitness to re-gain his strength and mobility. He lifted weights and ran on the treadmill when his doctor cleared him.
“I just kept thinking about basketball and soccer and Ultimate Frisbee, and that’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “I knew I’d have to work hard to get my speed and stamina back.”
By May, Will was cleared to play competitive Ultimate Frisbee. When he came home after a game with bloodied arms from diving for disks, it was a proud moment for Bob.
Will was back – and better than ever.
“I felt like I could jump higher and run faster. I felt I got more athletic after my surgery,” Will said.
It’s been almost a year since Will’s surgery, and his determination has carried him further than he first imagined it could. Not only was Will one of only four sophomores to be selected for the varsity Ultimate Frisbee team, he was also elected by his soccer teammates to be a co-captain of the 10th-grade team.
His full recovery didn’t surprise Hopkins High School Ultimate Frisbee head coach Erin Mirocha.
“He’s patient and disciplined, and he’d rather make the right decision than force something to happen (in the game),” she said.
Says his dad, “He’s more mentally strong and determined than I ever thought any kid or most adults could be.”
Will is a first-year member of Children’s Youth Advisory Council