It's hard to talk about Luke England and not mention sports. He plays both ways on the East Hall High football team and bats in the middle of the lineup on the baseball team.
But strip all of that away and pretend he never took a step onto the baseball diamond. Act like he'd never run a single play on the football field. And all that's left for the 16-year-old is family.
That was England's reality just 18 months ago when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma at 15. But he fought through it, beat it and was told he was cancer free on July 20, 2018.
A year later, he said he feels like he’s “seen a different part of the world.”
“You've got to kind of cherish your moments,” England said. “You almost died, and then you just see life totally different.”
Slumped back on a couch with his arms crossed and wearing a T-shirt with the words “Positive Athlete” across the chest, England remembered how he got through everything he faced in 2018.
It was his friends, family and that upbeat attitude alluded to on his shirt.
“You can definitely push yourself way more than you think,” England said as he tapped his feet, outfitted with camouflage Crocs, on the tile floor. “I haven't found that stopping point yet. It's just, your pain tolerance and stuff is way different and you just don't want to miss out on something because it hurts. It's no big deal.”
So, he doesn’t miss out.
Not wasting time
England said he tries not to let a single moment pass him by. Whether that means spending time with family, hanging out with friends or keeping his summer lawn care business up and running, England is always on the go.
He’s so busy, his mother, Amy, has to force him to stay home sometimes.
“Believe me, he's never at home, because when he’s not on the baseball field or the football field, he’s on the lake fishing or he's in the woods hunting,” Amy said. “He literally says he doesn't want to waste a minute.”
His sister, Lainey, said he wakes up earlier than most people his age for the same reason.
“It's so funny because now, even on his days off of school, he does stuff from like 5 a.m. until he crashes at night,” Lainey said. “He's not like a teenager where he's sleeping in or he wastes his day away. He has stuff planned for every single day of the week and he's been doing that since he got back from the hospital.”
Lainey said she and her brother are closer than most siblings. When Luke was first diagnosed, she was away at college. But the next semester, she decided to move back home because she realized the importance of family.
It wasn’t that she didn’t understand that before. She was simply ready to move away to college after graduating from high school.
“When I first moved out, it was more of, ‘I can't wait to get away,’” Lainey said. “That's not the vibe around our house anymore. We care about each other and that kind of stuff. Before all this happened, it's not like we didn't love each other, but it really brought things back to where they were.”
Michael Perry, Luke’s football coach, has been there for him, too. They haven’t known each other long — Perry was hired at the end of 2018 — but they’ve supported each other through the shared experience of a world revolving around cancer.
Perry’s wife, Elia, has breast cancer.
“I'm telling you man, you're blessed,” Perry said directly to Luke while sitting across the room. “Every Thursday, we go up there to the Longstreet Clinic’s third floor and there's people up there just by themselves. They've got nobody.”
For Luke,the support has been there since the beginning and hasn’t faded.
“That weekend I got diagnosed, I definitely had so much support,” Luke said. “That kind of just opened my eyes, like, I’m not alone.”
He had friends visit while he was at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Amy said the nurses had never seen someone with so much support.
Lainey said people she didn’t know or hadn’t spoken to in years reached out to her to make sure she was OK, too.
But when those friends went home for the night and it was just Luke and his family, that’s when the support counted the most.
“I think if each of us would have tried to deal with it on our own, we would have just all fallen apart,” Lainey said.
They leaned on each other and together, the family leaned on the community. And now, Lainey said “this will be part of our lives for the rest of our lives.”
But Luke is using the support to “get back to normal.”
“You would have no idea he's been through what he's been through,” Perry said.
Eric Fowler, Luke’s baseball coach, said he’s always been impressed with the way Luke has carried himself, especially since being told he was cancer free. Even though it took him a while to regain his strength and stamina, Fowler said Luke has shown something not a lot of kids his age would.
“I think about how mentally strong he was through that,” Fowler said. “I'll always remember that and how it never really fazed him.”
The past year has been focused on giving back, and the future will be full of much of the same.
Luke recently took part in the WSB Care-a-Thon, a radiothon that benefits the Aflac Cancer Center, where was diagnosed.
“You have the urge to give back,” Luke said. “I'm always going to raise money for childhood cancer, always go do events, all that. You just want to always give back.”
For Lainey, donating to childhood cancer research was never something that was at the forefront of her mind. But after seeing her brother go through it, her feelings have made a 180-degree turn.
“I remember when people talked about giving money, I was just like 'Oh, OK,’ because it didn't really affect me, I guess,” Lainey said. “And it kind of annoyed me in a way. But then seeing it firsthand ... someone I don't even know can be diagnosed, and it literally makes my heart sink now because I know that emotion and I know what they're going through.”
Now that she does know that, she said there’s no way she couldn’t be involved in fundraising for childhood cancer.
Amy said Luke has to go back to the doctor to do labs every three months. And in the year since being cancer free, he’s had one appointment for scans to make sure he’s still cancer free. His second appointment is coming up Aug. 19.
Even though the appointments are reminders of Luke’s past with cancer, Lainey said the goal now is to look ahead.
“I don't want to say every day is about this, because it has been a year,” Lainey said. “But we are moving on, we have other things in our life.”
For Luke, it’s been a whirlwind. And the past year being cancer free has been an adjustment to learn how to get back to who he was before cancer. But he said he never really lost who he was and he doesn’t plan on changing that anytime soon.
“I don’t really let cancer hold me back,” Luke said.