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Gainesville's A.J. Smallwood cherishing 'long road' following recovery from testicular cancer
Junior baseball player humbled by experiences of chemotherapy, surgery
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Gainesville High's A.J. Smallwood poses in the backyard of his Flowery Branch home. Smallwood, 16, is returning to health following surgery and chemotherapy to treat testicular cancer. - photo by David Thackham

There were hundreds of emotions that A.J. Smallwood went through after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in early May.

Pain. Confusion. Frustration. Fear.

Baseball seemed so far away for the Gainesville High sophomore. And yet, whenever he had the strength, Smallwood would sneak off to the small batting net he and his father Jay constructed in the basement of his Flowery Branch home.

Occasionally, he’d shake off the drowsiness he felt from chemotherapy and take in a batting session. It made him feel things that he had felt before he underwent the longest three months of his life.

Freedom. Joy. Power. Control.

“At first, I started really light, but lately, I’ve been busting it,” said Smallwood.

After five months, his first surgery, and three rough rounds of chemotherapy, Smallwood is cancer-free and wants to turn his experience into a learning lesson for other teenagers in his situation.

Smallwood, now a junior, is focusing on building back his muscle mass after losing around 20-30 pounds throughout his recovery.

He’s convinced that he’ll be back on the baseball diamond sooner than his coaches expect him to be ready.

But most importantly, Smallwood has a new outlook on life, one that’s teaching him to be grateful for every day.

“It’s honestly amazing, knowing you beat cancer,” he said. “Now I know not to take life for granted.”

Discovery

Smallwood was happy to be along for the ride this spring as head coach Jeremy Kemp’s Gainesville varsity team swept through the first two rounds of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.

After winning the junior varsity pitching award, Smallwood was called up as depth for Kemp’s team just a week before he turned 16.

“He was just out there to help support and help out the team in any way he could, but he loved being there,” said Jay Smallwood, A.J.’s father.

On May 1, Smallwood watched from the bench as Gainesville topped Cambridge in the first round of the postseason.

Three short days later, Smallwood and his father celebrated his 16th birthday with a dinner out. A.J. considers Jay to be “his best friend,” and said he often comes to Jay for advice and support.

When he returned home from his birthday dinner, AJ took a shower and discovered a lump on his testicle the size of a small pea.

At first, Smallwood considered ignoring it. He didn’t want to think anything was wrong with him. But he knew he could trust his dad.

“I thought, ‘That’s not supposed to be there,’” said A.J. “The next day, we went to the pediatrician and they had me do an ultrasound. Right before the doctor told me I had cancer, me and Dad were just cutting up, but as soon as they told us that, we looked at each other like ‘Is this seriously happening right now?’ I’m 16 years old, how do I have cancer?”

Jay and A.J. cried in the car together on the way home.

Therapy

According to the St. Jude Medical Center, testicular cancer is the most common cancer for men between the ages of 20 to 34. However, with early detection, there is a nearly 99 percent chance for cure.

Within days of his initial diagnosis, Smallwood underwent surgery to remove a testicle at the Scottish Rite children’s hospital in Atlanta. With early detection and prevention, he said, his doctors were confident that they would be able to stop the spread of the cancer cells. If Smallwood never told anyone, it’s possible that the disease could have spread to his lungs.

After the operation, Smallwood even got to spend time with his Gainesville teammates, watching them from the dugout or a press box.

“I pretty much saved my own life,” he said. “I’m glad I told them. A lot of people my age would say, ‘Oh, it’ll go away,’ but I would definitely recommend that others tell somebody.”

Confident that the surgery had removed his tumor, Smallwood enjoyed being back out in his element. He watched his Red Elephants team reach the state finals series. He even played a little summer ball, throwing a one-hitter in June.

But then, another round of bad news. Smallwood’s tumor markers shot back up, so doctors recommended to keep him in for three rounds of chemotherapy over the next three months.

One of his doctors told Smallwood to prepare for “the longest three months of your life,” according to A.J. “At that point, I was honestly scared, like I didn’t know if I have this in me. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to beat cancer,” he said. “But I got my mind right with God, I prayed, and I talked to him all the time.”

Smallwood lost his hair and some of his muscle mass, but none of his fight.

He often would head downstairs in his Flowery Branch home to practice his swing or throw a few baseballs in the cage, sometimes with friends, sometimes on his own.

“There was a couple of times when I’d feel pretty decent,” he said. “I’d try to hit, and I’d be so weak that I couldn’t even hit the ball, the bat was so heavy. I could only hit a few balls back then. I’m just trying to get my strength back in me.”

Recovery

Three months later, Smallwood received his final lab test results on Sept. 18, which proved that his tumor markers were back down to a normal level, and that he was finally in the clear.

The day before, he and Kemp met for lunch. The two mostly talked about baseball, with Smallwood talking about how he was looking forward to bulking back up before the beginning of the coming season.

Kemp said he wanted to bring his prospect back slowly, and not rush Smallwood’s recovery process.

“He’s got a long road ahead of him, but with the success he’s had here lately, we’ll gladly take the road to put 30 pounds back on him,” said Kemp. “He’s definitely not in playing shape, but he’s ready to go. You can tell he’s eager to get back to work.”

Smallwood’s energy is coming back day by day, and he’s been working in the cage more often with occasional lifting sessions, when he can.

For the junior, baseball is a way to get away from it all. Stress falls away and weakness turns to strength, with each pitch faced.

He’ll cherish every moment going forward, with memories of his toughest days fading behind him.

“I love baseball, it’s my life,” he said. “It’s always been my go-to place to be relaxed and happy.”

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