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‘Focus on getting through the little things.’ Flowery Branch’s Garrett Plumlee finishes senior year strong amid cancer diagnosis
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Flowery Branch High's Garrett Plumlee - photo by Scott Rogers

While sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office with his mom, Garrett Plumlee, then a sophomore, said he remembers hearing someone shouting, “Holy guacamole!”

He soon found out the surprised remark was about his test results.

Plumlee, now a graduating senior at Flowery Branch High School, said he was told that he had an extremely elevated white blood cell count and needed to be rushed to the hospital. 

After being examined, he said the doctor told him he probably didn’t have cancer but some other disease. That wasn’t the case. 

From sophomore to junior year, Plumlee visited a doctor each month. 

“They couldn’t figure it out until this past November,” he said. “They tried to take me off the steroids I was on for a whole year. When they did, the Hodgkin lymphoma presented itself in its classic case. My neck started swelling.”

Plumlee said he underwent surgery to have one of his lymph nodes removed for a biopsy. In November, his diagnosis was confirmed. He had stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

“At the time, it just really didn’t feel real,” Plumlee said. “I just kind of refused to process it for a while. Until one night, when I really had time to reflect, was when I could decompress and get some feelings out.”

Plumlee started his chemotherapy right away, visiting the infusion suite every other week. His last session was April 28. Until he receives another positron emission tomography scan, he won’t know the success of his treatment. 

However, Plumlee is staying positive and finishing his senior year strong.

Class of 2021

Read stories of outstanding seniors across Hall County in our Class of 2021 special section. Pick up a copy of the print publication, which lists names of all the graduating seniors, inside the May 8-9 weekend edition of The Times.

Taking four Advanced Placement classes at a time isn’t a walk in the park for most students, let alone someone with cancer. Since becoming a virtual student in January, Plumlee said he takes three-and-a-half days off school every other week to recover from his chemotherapy. 

“It is a new level of rigor,” he said. “If you think about jumping from honors to AP, it’s like jumping from AP to whatever may be beyond that, a cancer level. I miss almost a week of school, then the second I get back, I have to work hard and make up a bunch of tests.”

In addition to his assignments and exams, Plumlee is also preparing for his four AP tests. He could skip the tests and opt out of earning college credit. 

“That’s never been a doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t try at least,” he said. “In the beginning, it (studying for AP tests) was one of the only things I could really focus on and put energy into and feel productive despite all that was going on.”

Plumlee is the president of his school’s Beta Club and has already been accepted into the University of Georgia. The senior said he plans to soon attend college on the Zell Miller Scholarship with an undecided business major. Plumlee said he feels life tugging him toward entrepreneurship. His grandfather founded Specialty Tag & Label in Flowery Branch, building the business from the ground up. Plumlee’s father also helps run the shop.

“That’s been really inspiring for me, and that’s something I totally want to do,” he said.

Throughout his journey with cancer, Plumlee shared that his teachers, close friend Andrew Wade, who also underwent a similar health-related life-altering experience, and his parents have been his biggest supporters. 

If he could give any advice to high schoolers facing hardship, Plumlee said he would tell them to “focus on getting through the little things.” He noted that the most impactful message he received during his treatment was from an anonymous 30-something-year-old man. 

“He had a mantra for himself: Wake up, get up, go eat and get dressed,” Plumlee recounted. “If you did those four things, then that was a success for him on treatment day. What I would say is do what you have to do, and you’ll feel a lot better. And, just go from there.”

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Flowery Branch High's Garrett Plumlee - photo by Scott Rogers
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