Michael Bowers wrestled his entire junior season at Winters Mill despite developing constant fatigue and random colds. His matches became inconsistent, up-and-down, and questions started to rise.
What was going on with Mike?
Those questions were answered last March, just as Bowers was preparing for lacrosse season. Multiple tests and a biopsy later proved what everyone had hoped wasn't true.
Bowers had Stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"I didn't feel much physical pain," Bowers said before Winters Mill's match Thursday against rival Westminster. "The hardest part was how much I couldn't do, I was always so tired and I couldn't eat the same things because I always got sick."
According to the American Cancer Society's website, lymphoma starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes. The lymphocytes are within the lymph system, part of the body's immune system that helps fight infections.
The lymph system is made up of lymphoid tissue, lymph vessels, and a clear fluid called lymph. Lymphoid tissue includes lymph nodes, bean-sized collections of lymphoid tissue in many places throughout the body. Hodgkin's spreads through these vessels from lymph nodes and can get into blood vessels that cause the disease to spread among the body, according to information on the ACS site.
Before his diagnosis, Bowers wasn't used to people taking care of him. He liked to do things on his own without help.
When he started chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins that April, the support rolled in and it didn't stop. His coaches and teammates brought meals to him and his family. Basic chores became too difficult for Bowers, so his teammates and coaches did them for him.
"With that kind of thing, especially when you know someone, you're in denial," WM coach John Lowe said. "You don't think it could be final, and when he started coming to school after he lost his hair, he started wearing a hat and guys realized how serious it was."
Despite his disease, Bowers still wanted to live like a normal 16-year-old.
Aside from lacrosse and wrestling, he also played football. Missing his junior season of lacrosse took a toll on him and it was unclear if he would be able to play his other favorite sports again.
"He did OK," said Matt Bowers, Michael's father. "The chemo really shut him down and he never wanted to do a whole lot but he went out with his friends as much as possible, but other than that, he didn't do much."
"I was so happy because then we went on vacation and it was just the best way to celebrate," he said. "I never gave up."
Football was still out of the question that season, but it didn't keep Bowers from getting back into shape.
"He would slip into practice and say 'Hey coach, I'm cleared to practice,' and at first we didn't have any expectations whatsoever," Lowe said. "We didn't think he would be back at all but he got to the point where he would finish practices and attend more than our regulars. We all wondered if he had a chance to come back."
When Cherokee Johnson, Winters Mill's 152-pounder, injured his shoulder, Lowe's son Hunter moved up to varsity and Bowers had asked him if he could wrestle for the spot. Last Wednesday, Bowers competed in his first match back from beating cancer and won his bout against Liberty.
Bowers fell to South Carroll's Shane Conners in the Falcons' second match, but it hardly mattered.
"Running and physical activity was the worst because it was hard to breathe," Bowers said. "That first match back, I was so nervous but I'm happy I won one."
He wrestled Westminster's Nik Boyle on Thursday and made it into the third period before Boyle pinned him.
"I don't care if he wins, I'm just happy he's back," Matt Bowers said. "He's been through so much at 17 and it's made him a much stronger person. He hasn't changed as far as attitude and I give him credit for that. I still push him a little bit."
Battling cancer was one of the most difficult things Bowers ever experienced. His mother died when he was 12, Bowers said, but these situations have only made him stronger.
"There's a sense of male pride about doing things yourself and I think when he got to that point in rehab, he couldn't depend on anyone else," Lowe said. "He had to deal with his own conditioning, his own strength and ability to come back. When he stopped needing to depend on others and got to the point where it was just him, he turned.