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Zach Lederer, 'Zaching,' and the local teen's bold fight against cancer

CancerColleges and UniversitiesCollege SportsRussiaFacebookTim Tebow

It is an image that has inspired hundreds, if not thousands.

Zach Lederer, 18, stares directly and defiantly into the camera, arms up and flexed in a muscle pose, surrounded by the medical accouterments of his hospital bed.

He had just come out of brain surgery at Johns Hopkins, during which doctors had removed 80 to 90 percent of a cancerous tumor, a tumor that had shocked Zach, his family and his doctors. Zach had already beaten cancer, seven years ago. Doctors had already watched radiation reduce a walnut-sized tumor in 11-year-old Zach's brain to nothing, to the point that he had been deemed cancer-free.

Zach had already won this fight.

But last month, despite medical odds, the cancer had come back, wrenching the Ellicott City native out of his freshman year at theUniversity of Maryland, College Park and dragging him into another fight for his life.

"It was like a slap in the face," said his father, John Lederer, of the diagnosis.

In his bed that day, Jan. 25, Zach was out of it, still drugged and groggy and just an hour out of surgery. But he had it in his mind that he wanted to reach out to all the people he knew were waiting on news about his condition, to show them he was strong.

"In case you were worrying, I'm going to make these muscles and make every ounce of worry in your mind go away," he recalled thinking Saturday, on a couch in his parents home on Frederick Road.

His selfless goal worked, and to an amazing degree.

Posted on Facebook, the photo inspired Zach's cousins, Joey O'Dwyer and Jon Feldman, of Reisterstown, to mimic Zach's muscle pose. They wrote that "Tebowing," the genuflecting pose made famous by NFL quarterback Tim Tebow, was out, and that "Zaching" was in.

Other people began striking the pose as well, and Zach's classmate from Centennial High, Raymond Kim, created a Tumblr page to collect all the images in one place.

They kept pouring in, and "Zaching" officially took off.

'Big in Greece and Russia'

In the last few weeks, Kim's site has exploded with images of people Zaching, submitted from all over the country, and all over the world.

"It's big in Greece and Russia," Zach said, with a laugh.

Images have been submitted by famous comedians (Dane Cook and Adam Carolla), athletes (Brendon Ayanbadejo and Torrey Smith), actors (Craig Robinson), politicians (including Zach's grandmother, Del. Liz Bobo), members of the military, local radio personalities, entire sports teams from high schools and colleges around the country, and practically the entire athletics department of the University of Maryland, College Park (where Zach is a manager for the men's basketball team).

There are also shots of little kids, of college students in their dorms and — most important to Zach — of other people battling cancer.

The "Zaching" craze, as it were, has snowballed into a mountain of positive vibes, of support and good will directed not only toward Zach, but toward everyone battling cancer.

While Zach still has a long battle in front of him — he will likely begin radiation and chemotherapy treatment soon, and has taken the semester off — the "Zaching" phenomenon has helped his family, including his parents and his younger sister, Julia, deal with the immensity of what Zach is facing, they said.

It has helped them move past the shock and focus on beating the cancer once again.

"This Zaching thing has helped fill that void with a lot of positive hope," said Zach's mother, Christine Lederer.

"He's telling everyone in that pose that he struck in the hospital, in his hospital gown, that he's determined, that he's going to get through this," said Bobo. "It's very moving to see people respond the way they are."

The fact that Zach is resolutely optimistic hasn't hurt, either.

'Be happy for me'

In the firestorm of media attention he has received in the last two weeks, Zach has remained on message.

He knows people are worried, and he clearly doesn't like it. He seems more concerned for them than about himself. He knows the Zaching phenomenon has taken off because it is inspiring, and he wants his message to family, friends and fellow cancer patients to stay on point.

Worrying, Zach said, is a "waste of energy and time."

People have looked to Zach for how to respond to his diagnosis, and in that simple picture from his hospital bed, he has given them permission to be bold, a little cocky, unrelentingly strong.

"Don't be sad for me, be happy for me," Zach said Saturday, of the message he wants to convey. "Not many people get the opportunity to show how strong they are."

"There's no sense of, 'Oh, poor Zach,' and that's the way he wants it," Bobo said.

"Zachary, once again, has carried us through it," said his father. "He's extremely strong to take that outlook."

Indeed, it's an amazing outlook, especially when Zach, a broadcast journalism major, delivers it in person, his voice deep, his eyes unblinking, his gaze resolute.

He seems stoic but entirely genuine, and his composure isn't at all faked. It's something that has been won.

It is born out of Zach's experiences with cancer as a kid — "In a way, I've practiced beating cancer before," he said — and inspired by the many kids he now sees in the hospital, who, like he did at age 11, put on brave faces.

"Who am I not to fight when those kids are fighting their butts off?" he asked.

'Arrogant and confident'

This is certainly a fight, and Zach knows it. It's part of the reason why the self-described "sports fanatic" looks to one of his heroes, Muhammad Ali, for inspiration.

Ali was "mouthy, he was arrogant," Zach says.

The boxer was unconventional, leaning away from punches instead of putting up his arms. Zach takes a similar approach to fighting cancer, he said.

There are times when he stares at the mirror, defiantly, imagining he is challenging the cancer in his brain with an Ali-like bravado.

"When you have cancer, you kind of have to be arrogant and confident," he said. "Sometimes I look at the mirror like I'm talking to cancer. 'How dare you challenge me?' "

Zach's taken punches before. He knows there are more in store. "This is life and death," he said.

But he's ready, he said.

"Whatever they can throw at me, I'm ready for it," he said.

That's what people see in the picture that inspired Zaching, said his father.

"It's a resolute, determined look," John Lederer said.

"He tells me that he's aware that he is in a position in his life where he can inspire other people, and that he intends to use it, and indeed he is," Bobo said. "It's just fascinating to watch that from the position of an 18-year-old with a recurring malignant brain tumor, he is actually spreading joy in the community and the world."

That's it, right on message.

Raymond Kim's Tumblr page of Zaching photos, zaching.tumblr.com, has in part helped him and fellow Centennial graduates Kevin Barnes and Ella Lee raise funds for a 4,000-mile bicycling trip for cancer awareness they are participating in called 4K for Cancer. Those interested in donating can email Raymond at zaching27@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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