LIMESTONE, Maine — In the fall of 2008, Zach Cote, then 14, was stretching out sore limbs after hours of playing soccer. As he lowered his head toward his inner left ankle, he noticed a small bump. His family doctor initially thought it was a cyst, and it wasn’t really bothering him, so Cote continued to play soccer, basketball and baseball for the next year.
But soccer season came around again, and things were different. The bump had grown to golf ball size and was painful, and sometimes his foot was going numb. Cote and his family sought help from a specialist in Bangor in November 2009, and a few days after Thanksgiving learned that he didn’t have a cyst — he had cancer.
The treatment options for the rare form of childhood cancer were grim: either cut out the lump, lose use of the foot and risk the chance that the cancer would return, or amputate below the knee.
“About a half hour after the diagnosis, I told the doctor I wanted to go through with the amputation,” Cote, now 16 and a junior at Limestone Community School, said on Monday afternoon. “I just wanted to get it out and move on with my life.”
So that is what he did. And even though Cote lost his leg, he never once lost his positive attitude and can do spirit, according to family and friends. Cote, whose story has inspired many in this tiny northern Maine community, is being honored this month by his school, his town and even by ESPN.
On Dec. 15, the school will be hosting a fundraiser and celebration, called “It’s All About The Bling,” to raise money for the American Cancer Society and to mark the passing of a year since Cote’s surgery. The event will take place during the home opening game for the varsity boys’ basketball team, of which Cote is a member.
“I am looking forward to the game,” Cote said with a smile. “It will be nice to get in the uniform again.”
Cote also is one of five high school athletes in the country being featured by ESPN during the sports network’s fourth annual Jimmy V Week for Cancer Research, Dec. 1-7. Features on television, online and in ESPN The Magazine during the week are designed “to raise awareness of the need to fund cancer research and to spotlight research successes,” according to ESPN. Cote’s story is expected to be available in the magazine and online at espn.com and at espnrise.com.
When Cote woke up after surgery last Dec. 15, he said that he had already come to terms with losing his leg.
“My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be like I was before,” he said. “So I really just wanted to get out of bed and get my prosthetic leg so I could get going. I didn’t want to get down on myself. That isn’t useful.”
Four days later, he got out of the hospital and attended a spaghetti supper in his honor and a basketball game at school.
Two weeks after surgery, he began physical therapy and by the end of February he had been fitted with a prosthetic leg. Though forced to sit out the basketball season during his recovery, he still attended every practice and sat on the bench in his uniform. He zipped through physical therapy, meeting goals way ahead of schedule, and adapted to his prosthesis just as quickly, although it was difficult at first.
“It was just like taking baby steps,” he explained. “I was walking and holding my arms out in case I had to catch myself.”
By spring, he was back on the baseball field, and in the fall he resumed his position as a sweeper on the soccer team.
Jon Hamilton, coach of the boys’ varsity basketball and soccer teams, said that neither cancer nor a prosthetic leg has slowed Cote down.
“Prior to surgery, he was a hard worker, a dedicated athlete and a team player,” Hamilton said on Monday. “That is exactly who he is now. He struggled at first to get used to the prosthesis, but that was it. He just came back full force.”
Hamilton said that he was “shocked” when he heard that Cote had cancer, but vowed that he would be a major support system for him. The coach himself battled and beat cancer as a 12-year-old.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “I know what a diagnosis like that can do to you. But Zach just wanted to be treated normally. He doesn’t see himself as special or inspirational. His biggest focus is just moving on and putting this behind him. I once heard him say, ‘Hey, that surgery was a year ago. Get over it — I have.’”
Spencer Keiser, 17, a senior and basketball teammate, acknowledged that Cote’s diagnosis hit him especially hard. Keiser had just lost his stepfather to cancer and didn’t know what the prognosis would be for his friend and teammate.
“After he lost his leg, I thought that he wouldn’t play again, and that he wouldn’t want to be social,” Keiser said. “But I was wrong. When I went to a baseball game this past spring, I was shocked o see him out there running the bases. He is still the same old Zach.”
Basketball teammates Arron St. Pierre, 18, and Josh Forsman, 17, both seniors, agreed. Both said that Cote is the same strong athlete he has always been, with the same upbeat, positive and kind demeanor.
“Zach has never given up on anything,” said St. Pierre. “You would never know he has been through what he has.”
“He is a total fighter,” echoed Forsman. “If anything, he is more aggressive on the field and the court now.”
Because Cote wears pants during baseball games and pulls his socks up to his knees during soccer matches, some opposing players may not even be aware of his prosthesis, Forsman said.
“He goes out there and plays and unless our opponents know him, they don’t know he has a prosthetic leg,” Forsman said. “No one is easier on him in a game because of it, and he doesn’t want them to be.”
Both teens also said that Cote has changed their respective outlooks on life.
“He won’t admit it, but he is an inspiration,” said St. Pierre. “If I get a little ankle injury or something now, I think of Zach and don’t complain. We all look at him and smile and say, ‘Yeah, he’s on our team.’
“When I see him out there working so hard despite all that he has gone through, it makes me want to bump up my game,” said Forsman.
‘It’s All About The Bling’
Jennifer Poitras is a Title I reading teacher at the Limestone Community School. She didn’t know Cote until she heard about his diagnosis and watched with pride as he triumphed over the disease
“He just has this ‘can do’ spirit and this uplifting attitude that really impacts others,” she said on Monday. “And he is so humble. He doesn’t see himself as a hero. He also always wants to concentrate on paying it forward.”
She said that the attribute is best illustrated by a decision Cote made after his amputation — he donated his leg to cancer research.
“Who knows how many other lives that he might have saved by that decision?” She remarked. “But to him, it is no big deal.”
Poitras and Ken Hixson, an English teacher at the school, started thinking about ways to honor Cote’s first year after his surgery. It was especially important for her to usher him into his second year following the amputation on a positive note, as Poitras is also a cancer survivor. Her second year being cancer free, she said, was the hardest for her because she lived in constant fear of the cancer coming back. A committee was formed at school and the fundraiser “It’s All About The Bling” came to life.
During the Dec. 15 game against Easton, the Limestone basketball team will wear gold jerseys, as gold is the color of the ribbon for childhood cancer. Members of the school’s sports teams are known as the Eagles, but that night the players will wear jerseys pronouncing them “Eaglez” in honor of Zach.
The event will include a 50/50 raffle, concession sales and other fundraising activities, with all proceeds going to the American Cancer Society. Since the school doesn’t have cheerleaders, those from Caribou High School have volunteered to jazz up the crowd. Cancer survivors will be recognized during halftime and a memorial wall also will be on display.
Hixon said that he is proud both of Cote and students at the school.
“I told my students once that it has been said that cancer is the loneliest disease, because family and friends will sometimes take a step back from the victim,” he said. “That hasn’t happened here. These kids have taken a step forward.”
Poitras and Hixon both said that the Dec. 15 event is not just about Cote, but about all cancer survivors. They are expecting a huge crowd, as is Principal Leland Caron.
“Everyone knows someone touched by cancer,” Caron said. “And most people in this town know Zach and the difference he has made in people’s lives.”
As for Cote, he is grateful for the support from his family, friends, and the community, and is looking forward to Dec. 15. He said that he would offer others facing cancer the sentiment that he feels helped get him through his own disease.
“Just be positive, and think positively,” he said on Monday. “You could always be worse off. Don’t make molehills into mountains.”
“It’s All About The Bling” begins at 7 p.m. at Limestone Community School. More information about how to donate to the American Cancer Society is available online at cancer.org.