Without a hint of sarcasm in his voice, Luke England insists he’s normal.
The dozen or so other teenage boys buzzing around East Hall Park in neon warm-up jerseys bearing England’s last name and No. 3 suggest otherwise, but he sticks to his story.
He loves to fish, hangs out with his buddies in his free time and spends spring afternoons at the ballpark with his Vikings baseball teammates. He even attended a recent Braves game, and he drinks as much Mountain Dew as the average 15-year-old.
But underneath the black-and-gold East Hall cap angled slightly downward to shade his eyes is a tangible reminder of what sets him apart from his peers. Where he once wore flowing locks of hair, England now sports a clean shave to the scalp, one of the physical tolls of the chemotherapy aiding him in his ongoing battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Ask England about it, though, and he’ll tell you he’s a perfectly normal kid.
“Luke’s words to me just this weekend were, ‘I just have cancer; it’s not like I’m dying,’” Luke’s mother Amy said. “He told me, ‘I’m fine. I just want to be a normal kid.’ He has a hard time being in the spotlight, and he has never been a boaster.
“He just looks at this as if it’s any other sickness that anybody else would have.”
But this cancer is his sickness, his struggle, and his weapons against it are a quiet perseverance and an infectious positivity shining even during his darkest hours.
Yet no part of it seems to faze him, not even the outpouring of support from the East Hall community and others across the county that has uplifted a family whose faith has been pushed to the brink over the past few months.
Amy calls her son’s fight against cancer a “storm” the Englands have endured together, and at the center of it all sits Luke, carrying on his life as if nothing has changed.
“I don’t know if I could handle this like he is,” Amy said. “He has taken on his cancer diagnosis head-on. Our pastor said it perfectly the other day: ‘If there was ever a kid that could handle this, it’s Luke.’ He just has this presence about him, and everyone who knows him can see it.”
‘I thought it wouldn’t go away’
The Englands just wanted an answer.
Luke, a backup quarterback for the East Hall football team, first fell sick last November as the Vikings headed into the state playoffs. He ran a fever that lasted 28 days and eventually developed signs consistent with mono.
His parents brought him to the emergency room, where an ultrasound detected masses on his pancreas and lungs that doctors believed to be cancer or a bacterial infection. A lung biopsy conducted after Thanksgiving revealed no cancer just as Luke’s fever finally broke, but microbacteria lingering in his lungs landed him back in the hospital the week before Christmas.
Like the prior medical visits, the Englands left with little more information than they had before.
“We had a kid who was in great shape, playing two sports and healthy overall with no hiccups, but we couldn’t figure out what was actually going on with him,” Luke’s father Tommy said.
Toward the end of January, however, Luke’s health had returned. He experienced some soreness and pain from preseason baseball practices, but his family assumed that was just his body getting reacclimated to physical activity after fighting sickness for more than two months.
But while taking batting practice one evening, searing pain lanced through the elbow of Luke’s non-throwing arm.
“We worked with him a bit, and I was just dumbfounded by it,” said East Hall baseball coach Eric Fowler. “He’s a tough kid, a gamer, so you know he’s feeling something bad if he comes out of practice like that.”
Luke saw a sports medicine specialist Feb. 1, but that visit was also inconclusive. He still wanted to play baseball, but the pain when he swung a bat was unbearable.
From there, it only worsened.
Luke’s family watched helplessly as he retreated into himself over the next two weeks. His sister Lainey said he barely spoke during that time, which was an alarming sign from the kid who was usually cutting up and cracking jokes.
On a good night, the pain subsided enough for Luke to sleep for maybe two hours. He took multiple baths a day to ease the discomfort, which he categorized as a constant “10.”
“I thought it wouldn’t go away, so I’d just have to learn to live with it,” Luke said.
Then the Englands received news that Luke might not live much longer at all.
‘It’s absolutely devastating’
Finally, after more scans and another pain-induced trip to the ER, Tommy and Amy learned what had been afflicting their son for so long.
A bone biopsy taken Thursday, Feb. 15, at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Egleston Hospital confirmed their greatest fears — cancer.
“It’s devastating to find out your son has cancer,” Tommy said. “You just never think it’s going to happen to you or your family. It’s heartbreaking whenever you hear it happen to somebody else, but it’s absolutely devastating when it’s your child.
“We were thinking about the future and just had to stop and take it day to day.”
They officially got the news that Friday, though Luke said he doesn’t remember much from that time due to the medication he was on. But Luke’s parents said his first order of business was notifying his coaches and friends of his diagnosis and wishing them luck in their upcoming games.
“I cried a bit but mostly just wanted people to know what was going on,” Luke said. “I had to adjust my priorities.”
Among them was sending a text to Lainey, she said, urging his 18-year-old sister to look after their parents and not to worry about him because he was “fine.”
Doctors believed he was far from it.
They spent that Saturday poring over tests on his chest and back, still unsure what type of cancer Luke had. A scan showed tumors all over his body, but one on his spine caused physicians to recommend immediate chemotherapy out of fear it could paralyze Luke.
“We got together and prayed,” said Tommy, who noted he and his wife felt an odd peace about the situation. “We said to each other, ‘No matter what, God will get us through this.’”
The following day, things appeared to take a turn for the worse.
“The doctors ruled against treatment then and began throwing around terms like ‘quality of life,’” Tommy said, his voice catching with emotion. “We prayed that if there was no cure for what he had to at least make it treatable — something like lymphoma. We specifically prayed for that.”
Added Amy: “I just said that whatever God wants, he’d get the glory for it. We’d walk this road if it’s the one he wants for us.”
The Englands’ path was about to abruptly veer once again.
A lymphoma specialist came in to observe Luke that Monday at the request of one of the on-site doctors who Tommy said stayed up all night looking at Luke’s scans. The bone marrow test that came back Tuesday was more like an answered prayer to the Englands.
“They discovered it was non-Hodgkin lymphoma and that Luke would have a chance to fight this, and that was the best news we could have gotten,” Tommy said. “The type Luke has is pretty treatable and curable. … I was relieved when we finally just got a diagnosis.”
When doctors prescribed five rounds of chemotherapy, Luke chose to do it over five-and-a-half months instead of a year and simply said, “Let’s get it started.’”
Amy recalled her son going into his first treatment at 9:08 p.m. that day, hooked up to a morphine pump to cut the pain.
The next day, Luke was comfortable enough to slice the dose of morphine in half, and by the third day, he was functioning solely on oral pain medication and one step closer to being a normal kid again.
“That first round of chemo gave him some relief, and it started giving us our child back,” Amy said. “Since November, he just hadn’t been the same kid, and for the two weeks before it, he hadn’t said a word. But he was laughing and joking around after the chemo like his usual self.”
‘We’ve felt the support’
Prior to his diagnosis and starting chemotherapy, Luke had tossed around the idea of cutting his mane of hair and donating it to a charity.
When he had no choice but to lose it, he wasn’t alone.
About five or six of Luke’s baseball teammates and friends came by the hospital the day before he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, all prepared to shear their hair in a show of solidarity with Luke.
“It was crazy to see all the support,” Luke said. “You knew you always had it, but now that you actually have that support group and to see the people that care about you and want to help you, it’s just crazy to me.”
His parents said about 30 people came by the hospital to visit him that Saturday, the day after he learned he had cancer, and nearly 200 dropped in throughout the entire weekend.
“People asked if they could do anything for him, and all he asked for was Mountain Dew and candy,” Tommy said with a chuckle.
“Sour Patch Kids,” Lainey clarified.
A student a the University of North Georgia, she moved home from the Dahlonega campus to be with her family once Luke was diagnosed with cancer. Lainey spent nights at the hospital with her brother, around whom her entire world had come to revolve.
“I didn’t want to talk to other people unless Luke was with them or talking to them,” Lainey said. “I couldn’t do my own thing anymore.”
Once Luke left the hospital following his five-day opening round of chemotherapy, his sister continued finding ways to support him. Lainey designed a fundraiser T-shirt with “Lift up Luke” written in bold letters across the back above the Bible quote from Matthew 17:20 that claims “faith can move mountains.”
The East Hall community followed suit.
Two wristbands — one designed by the school’s baseball team, which was nearly bought out of stock as of last Wednesday — have been sold in fundraising efforts for the family.
The Vikings players also decided to wear neon warm-up shirts to honor Luke, whose No. 3 is painted near the on-deck circles at East Hall Park. East Hall football coach Bryan Gray, who stepped down from his position last week, and his staff also have reached out to the Englands.
Even teams from Hall County and the surrounding area have shown support, like when West Hall players wore Luke’s initials and number on their caps in a game against the Vikings.
“The East Hall community has been awesome, but even people from North Hall, West Hall, Chestatee and other schools have supported us,” Tommy said. “We’ve had about 10 different churches reach out to us and tell us they’ve been saying prayers for Luke.”
Those prayers, Tommy and Amy said, are doing as much work as the financial support they’ve received. They’ve channeled it toward other cancer-stricken families they’ve met in recent months, some of which don’t have outlooks as positive as Luke’s.
“We’ve felt the support of everyone’s prayers through it all,” Amy said. “I mean, I can physically feel people lifting us up through this vast storm.”
They got an extra dose of support last Wednesday when East Hall hosted its annual cancer awareness night.
Luke caught the ceremonial first pitch from Horace Gee, whose wife Twylita — a former teacher at East Hall Middle who was also involved with the high school band — died of cancer in 2013 and in whose memory the team hosts the event.
Shy of the spotlight like any other 15-year-old would be, Luke simply gave a little nod and waved his mitt when those in attendance applauded for him.
‘I will never forget’
Fowler sat next to Tommy in the East Hall Park press box, watching with nervous anticipation not normally attached to JV baseball games.
It had been a month and a day since Luke first discovered he had cancer, yet the freshman was in the lineup for the Vikings’ game against Johnson on March 17. Both Luke’s doctors and Fowler said he could play if he felt up to it, and a recent trip to the batting cages had him convinced he was healthy enough to compete.
“You wonder how something like that is going to go, and you just sit there holding your breath and hoping nothing goes wrong,” Fowler said.
Somehow, just about everything went right for Luke.
He recorded two hits and ran down a pair of fly balls in center field, as if he wasn’t still battling cancer and fresh out of chemotherapy. Luke held himself out of Game 2 of the doubleheader, but to him, his inexplicably quick return to the diamond was just another day at the ballpark.
“I felt normal,” he said. “Nothing different, really.”
There’s that word again — “normal.”
“I just wanted to play, and I felt like I could go,” Luke said. “I grew up watching the older guys, and I know them from travel teams. I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Fowler said Luke would have been a part of the varsity team, too, if not for his diagnosis. On top of serving as depth at pitcher for East Hall, the 15-year-old freshman was in the mix to compete for a position in the field.
“It was definitely a hit to this team,” the Vikings coach said. “But he’s still around as much as he can be, and we love to have him with us. And trust me, he’s going to be a good player. Over the next three years, you’ll be hearing his name a lot.”
Just hearing Luke’s name called over the ballpark speakers that night was a surreal moment for his parents, who were just four weeks removed from believing their son would be paralyzed, or worse.
“If you would have told me back then that he would even be able to play in a baseball game, I’d have told you, ‘No way.’ He was so sick and in so much pain,” said Amy, who was moved to tears recollecting the moment.
“The pride … I can’t even explain it. I can’t put it into words. It was overwhelming to see God’s goodness to let him walk onto a field again and play. When I saw him do that, I really felt like things would be OK.”
It was the only game Luke has played in this season, but the night will also stick with Fowler, who said watching Luke’s journey with cancer has greatly altered his perspective on life.
“I will never forget him doing that, especially while he’s in the middle of treatment,” Fowler said. “I know it was just a JV game. I’ve coached in so many games and will probably forget most of them, but I will never forget what Luke did that night.”
‘The new normal’
Luke excuses himself from a meeting with a reporter and trots over to the East Hall dugout. The starting lineup for North Hall is being announced over the park’s speakers, and he needs to join his Vikings teammates on the field before the important Region 7-3A game.
It’s what a normal baseball player would do.
He’s still very much a part of the team as it pushes for a playoff spot, even between his trips to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for chemotherapy.
“I can’t believe it, but I haven’t seen him down about it for one single day,” Fowler said. “ … We know he’s going to come out on top.”
The Englands will learn more about Luke’s health when he goes in for an MRI on Thursday, but the prognosis at the moment is that he will beat cancer. If his tests this week come back positive, he’ll begin his third round of treatment Friday, the same day the Vikings conclude the regular season.
In the meantime, Luke is keeping up with schoolwork through Hospital/Homebound, a state program designed to help students stay on track when their physical or mental health prevents them from attending school.
He hasn’t been back to campus yet, though his parents hope he can ease back into it by attending the final few days this year.
“My policy with schoolwork is work early and play late,” Amy said with a laugh. “We get his work done early in the morning so he can have the rest of the day to do what he wants.”
Luke has made the most of it. He has never been one to stay inside all day, but he fishes more than he used to, even if his disease and treatment cause him to be a sore after a few hours on the water. His newfound free time has also given him the chance to finally learn how to play the guitar, which Amy called “an outlet” for her son.
A two-sport athlete for years, Luke isn’t accustomed to having all this extra time on his hands.
“I’ve never had an offseason before,” he joked.
The Englands have also had to adjust their lifestyle a bit, all while trying to give Luke some space and the opportunity to live a normal life.
“It has finally started to soak in, and we’re learning a new normal,” Amy said. “He’s home for 21 days, then in the hospital for five. So we’ve been watching what we’re eating as a family and trying to keep him healthy. It’s just the new normal for us.”
There’s a chance the old normal is just a few months away. If Luke responds well to the last three rounds of chemotherapy — the final treatment is set for the first week of June — he plans to play travel baseball in Commerce, another community that helped raise money for his family.
Being back in time for football will be trickier, of course, because of the extensive training and physical demands necessary to play the sport safely and effectively. Even if he can’t suit up this fall, he’ll still be at practices and games cheering on his teammates like any other sick or injured player.
But that’s all still up in the air, and until then, Luke will continue living life on his own terms and insisting he’s just a normal teenager.
Those closest to him are beginning to believe it.
“I’ve started to see glimpses of Luke from before Nov. 4,” Amy said. “He has always been determined, and his focus is just to get better. I actually see a lot of good from this. I see goodness in people, goodness in medicine and goodness in God.
“It’s strange, but I see goodness from the whole situation.”