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UNCW student perseveres during third battle with cancer

McLeod Brown | Sports Editor

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April 23, 2015 is a day that will stick out in Zach Parks’ mind for some time. But he’s hoping there’s another date in the near future that will be of even more significance.

That late April day signifies the third time in his life Parks was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, at the ripe age of 21 years old. The UNCW sophomore has already gone through two treatments of the cancer, once at seven years old, and once when he was 12.

This most recent case being his third, Parks is positive he’ll be able to overcome the sickness just like the previous two times. And he hopes to prove something else along the way.

 

The collapses

Parks’ first episode began on a normal day in 2001. At his older brother’s baseball game, Zach went to the concession stand for a drink. The following few days are just a blur to him now.

“I was at my brother’s baseball game and went to get some hot chocolate from the concession stand and pretty much blacked out as I was reaching for the chocolate,” Parks said. “Next thing I know I’m on the ground surrounded by all these people. It all happened real fast honestly.”

Zach and his family traveled to the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, where doctors made their first discovery of A.L.L. leukemia.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is a type of blood cancer that begins in the white blood cells in bone marrow. The disease blocks the production of normal cells, such as red and white blood cells and platelets. It invades the blood and may spread throughout the body to other organs, such as the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes.

Approximately 6,000 people are diagnosed with A.L.L. leukemia, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.

During his first bout with the disease, Parks was administered a multitude of drugs during the chemotherapy process. He stayed in the hospital for about a month to begin treatment before he was released. Visits to the hospital then dwindled from twice a week to once a week to a couple times a month over the course of three and half years.

Parks and his family thought their fight with the disease was over after his fifth year in remission. Then, when Zach was in seventh grade in 2007, he collapsed in the bathroom getting ready for school one day.

Doctors were suspicious the disease could have reappeared and, following more tests back at Chapel Hill, diagnosed Zach with A.L.L. leukemia for the second time.

“That second time was really hard, because I started to feel like I was normal again,” Parks said. “But it didn’t last long. Up until getting out of the hospital, I tried to keep up the fight. It wasn’t really anything bad. It was stressful, but we had already been through it once before. We stuck together. Friends, a lot didn’t really understand what was going on.”

One more fight

Zach remained on treatment until his junior year at E.A. Laney High School. Upon being taken off medication for the disease, Zach excelled inside and outside of the classroom.

He graduated top of his class, was accepted into UNCW, moved out on his own, bought a car while paying his own way through school, and began working at a local Jersey Mikes location.

April 20th marked five years off treatment for Zach, when the sickness is supposed to have left the body entirely. A checkup due to back pain just three days later proved to tell a different story, however.

“I was just experiencing some pain in my back and my ribs,” Parks said. “I didn’t think it was cancer or anything. I missed a couple days of school and went and did a blood test. I came up here to Chapel Hill because it had been a while since I had been up here for a checkup, and that’s when I found out. This was the worst one. I felt a little bit devastated. It hit me pretty hard this time. Didn’t know what to think, didn’t want to believe it, but wanted to keep my head up.”

The chemistry and computer science double major has made it a point to keep a positive outlook during this third diagnosis. Parks is currently using a newly FDA-approved drug called Blincyto, which is supposed to shorten the treatment time of the cancer.

The drug is administered consecutively every day in cycles, with 28 days marking one cycle. There is no telling if the cancer may fall into remission after one cycle, or two or three, but the time during remission is supposed to be shortened by the drug.

Currently staying back in UNC’s Cancer Center, Parks and his family are hopeful this is the last time he’ll have to fight the disease that has altered his life up to this point. As long as they’re able to send a positive message through his battle, they’re hopeful the end result will be one of fulfillment.

“I got to keep going,” Parks said. “I have no choice but to continue. The other people that are going through something similar or the same thing just keep your head up. It might not seem like you don’t have any options, but the option is to keep going, keep continuing, and keep fighting.”

Those interested in donating to Zach and his treatment are encouraged to visit his gofundme page at:

http://www.gofundme.com/zachwillwin

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UNCW student perseveres during third battle with cancer