You have to be tough to play center in football. You have to be really tough to play center while undergoing chemotherapy.
Nathan Atterholt did just that 16 years ago. He played football and baseball for the Hillsdale High School Falcons in Ashland County. During his sophomore year in 2001, he developed swollen lymph nodes near his collarbone and a cough that wouldn’t go away. Nathan was referred to Akron Children’s Hospital, where he was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
“I remember my doctor, Dr. Jeffrey Hord, saying if I was going to get cancer, this was the one to get because we know how to treat it,” said Nathan, now an optometrist who lives on a farm in Jeromesville, south of Ashland.
“One of the hardest questions I asked Dr. Hord is, will I still be able to play football?”
Nathan answered that himself. Starting that summer, he went through 6 months of chemotherapy. Though fatigued, the 6’2”, 290-pound center didn’t miss a practice or a game. He wore a special pad under his jersey to protect the port implanted in his chest for chemo infusions. His only limitation was he couldn’t play both offense and defense because of the fatigue factor.
Nathan’s performance surprised everyone. He made second team all-league that year.
“I knew at the time it was remarkable how he tolerated treatment,” said Dr. Hord, director of the Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancers and Blood Disorders. Now, having a longer perspective, Dr. Hord said he finds it even more remarkable.
After the football season that year, Nathan underwent radiation treatments. Through it all, he only missed 1 day of school.
“For a 15 year old, it was a big deal to me to have a normal life,” he said. “Sports really helped me get through it because it gave me something else to focus on.”
His high school sweetheart, Amy, also helped him get through it. They were friends who had known each other since 5th grade (their paths had actually crossed in the nursery at Samaritan Hospital in Ashland, where they were born 1 day apart). They started dating shortly after Nathan was diagnosed. They married in 2007.
“He was a motivation to his whole team that year,” Amy recalled. Cancer also changed how Nathan approached life. He grew up fast and became more serious about academics.
After graduating high school, Nathan and Amy went to the College of Wooster, where both majored in biology. After undergrad, they were off to the Ohio State University. Nathan entered the College of Optometry and Amy pursued a master’s degree in occupational therapy.
While in college, they started raising money for the American Cancer Society through its Relay for Life fundraiser. They continued fundraising after college, and 7 years ago they started the Hillsdale Cancer Crusaders golf outing. As the annual event has grown, Nathan and Amy divide proceeds between the American Cancer Society and the Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancers and Blood Disorders.
Nathan and his family, grateful for the care he received, have kept in touch with Dr. Hord. Nathan sent him wedding photos, and his parents send him candy every Christmas. Dr. Hord is a sponsor of the golf fundraiser.
After the most recent event in May, Nathan sent a check for $3,500 to the Showers Family Center.
“This is our cause,” Amy said. “It has defined Nathan’s life. It’s what we do.”
Though it’s been 16 years, Nathan takes nothing for granted. He reflected on his experience and offered perspective to others struggling with cancer:
“I know at times cancer can consume you. The challenge is to not let it define you,” he said. “It is a constant struggle to see the positive when life does not seem to be going your way.”
He said he still battles anxiety related to his diagnosis.
“I would encourage everyone to keep faith: faith in your doctors and nurses, faith in God, and faith in your family and caregivers,” he said.
“You will never have to face this battle alone. I have used my experiences as a motivator to accomplish my goals personally and professionally. I still have struggles. But cancer has led me to appreciate all the gifts I have been given in life and to fully enjoy them.”