FORTVILLE — Ben Thompson thought the pain in his right shoulder was just a track and field injury.
Last summer, he didn’t know the aching he’d been feeling for months was something more serious than a muscle pull or tear. Doctors even misdiagnosed it.
It was July — summer break was ending, and the start of senior year was just around the corner — when his doctor delivered the bad news: a malignant tumor had lodged in his shoulder. He was diagnosed with Stage 1 non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
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Thompson, 18, underwent six rounds of chemotherapy. He missed the entire first semester of his senior year, but he wasn’t about to let his illness hold him back. He took classes online from his home in between treatments, keeping up on his studies while battling the cancer.
Earlier this year, he learned his cancer was in remission, and Friday, he celebrated another welcome milestone: he graduated alongside his peers at Mt. Vernon High School, right on time.
This fall, he’ll head to Ivy Tech Community College to study criminal justice, a career path educators said suits him well and affords the chance to give back to others and help his community. The cancer diagnosis, they said, has made him even more sympathetic to the needs and plights of others.
It’s an experience, he said, that changed him, made him stronger.
The pain in his shoulder first began in March 2016. As the track season started — he threw a discus for the team — Thompson sat out.
When he visited doctors, they performed MRIs and X-rays. They told him to take it easy, wait three months and see if the pain subsided.
When the pain got worse, keeping him awake at night, doctors ran more tests. Eventually, they had an answer.
It wasn’t the diagnosis he expected, and he definitely wasn’t prepared for it.
“I didn’t know what to think at that point,” he said.
Chemotherapy treatments were scheduled for every three weeks from July though December, forcing Thompson to miss first semester of his senior year.
But he didn’t fall behind.
Principal Greg Roach and former eighth-grade guidance counselor Bronwyn Kotarski helped Thompson sign up for online courses so he could keep up with his schoolwork.
Kotarski remembers the day Ben Thompson and his mom came into the school to tell educators what was happening.
She and Roach began looking at what credits he still needed and what he could do from home so his illness didn’t set him back.
Kotarski knows it must have been difficult for him to endure chemotherapy while still taking classes, but Ben Thompson is a determined kid, she said.
“He’s always been goal-oriented,” Kotarski said.
It wasn’t easy, he admits. Chemotherapy left him feeling nauseated and tired. He felt most sick the week following chemotherapy but said he consistently felt lousy.
Still, he hopped onto his laptop and did the work for his English and economics classes anyway, Thompson said.
It was frustrating and, at times, lonely.
He missed the everyday things — chatting with friends in the hall, eating lunch together.
His parents couldn’t always keep him company. Both were working full time, so they couldn’t stay home with him.
“You’re there alone after chemo with nothing to do. You’re there with just your thoughts,” he said.
What helped him stay positive was the support he felt from his community. Through it all, friends were there.
Students dressed in all green — the colored reserved for raising awareness for lymphoma — for a football game last fall, ordering T-shirts and bracelets bearing the phrase, “Stay strong, Ben.”
The soccer team held a “kick for the cure” event in his honor. And his friends adopted a therapy dog, Laney, for him from Greenfield-Hancock Animal Management, surprising him with the furry friend just before Christmas.
“Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten through it, really,” he said. “They did so much for me.”
Now, with the cancer in remission, his life is back on track, he said. He attended school second semester and held a job at Wells Greenhouse in Greenfield.
Still, the cancer cost him some.
Before the diagnosis, he had talked with a recruiter from Anderson University, where he hoped to go this fall to join its track and field team. He didn’t get to participate in the sport this spring because of lingering issues from the cancer. With two missed seasons, he won’t be able to play at Anderson any longer.
He still hopes to eventually transfer to a four-year university after earning general-education credits at Ivy Tech.
He wants to become a police officer; he’s always had a passion for helping others, he said.
Kotarski is certain he’ll make a difference in the lives of others. What he’s been through will likely drive him further to aid others in need, she said.
“He was just born to help other people,” she said. “This will make him even more empathetic to others and what other people are going through.”
Mt. Vernon class roster and top seniors, page XX