MILO — Zak Mills did everything he could to be ready for the first day of basketball tryouts Monday.
“I’ve been on a treadmill every night going a mile,” the 12-year-old seventh-grader at Penquis Valley Middle School said.
Zak also has worked religiously on dribbling with his right hand, a skill that wasn’t an issue during last year’s tryouts.
But the last 10 months were problematic not only for Mills’ dribbling hand, but for his overall health after being diagnosed last winter with bone cancer near his right wrist.
Chemotherapy and surgery ensued for the son of Jason and Andrea Mills of LaGrange. But the recovery has gone well — well enough for him to rejoin his soccer team for the end of its season this fall, and now well enough for him to pursue a return to basketball.
“The big thing is just being with my friends and being able to play with them,” said Zak, who is undergoing occupational therapy at Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft.
His next three-month checkup is scheduled for January with the possibility of an additional surgery sometime next year to loosen tendons in his fingers and increase the range of motion in his wrist.
“He’s really handled it all great,” said his father, a physical education teacher and boys varsity basketball coach at Penquis Valley High School, who took a sabbatical as the school’s boys varsity soccer coach this fall to be with his son.
“I guess the younger you are the more resilient you are. There were times over the summer you’d have never known. Obviously to look at him he didn’t have any hair so that was a sign, but his spirit was never down and he handled the chemo well.”
It was soon after Christmas last winter when Zak Mills first complained of a sore wrist after a middle-school basketball practice. A week later, the soreness persisted, so he went to see the school nurse.
The nurse informed Jason Mills of a bump near his son’s right wrist. While a subsequent X-ray found no break, a biopsy revealed osteosarcoma on Zak Mills’ right radius, the forearm bone that attaches to the thumb side of the wrist.
The youngster began his first round of chemotherapy to shrink the cancerous tumor on Feb. 12 and completed that in time to attend a couple sessions of the Eastern Maine Class C basketball tournament with his dad at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
A second three-week round of chemotherapy at Eastern Maine Medical Center led to surgery in Boston to have what remained of the tumor removed before undergoing a follow-up round of chemotherapy.
“The biggest thing that impressed me and impressed the nurses at the hospital was just how mature he was about it,” Jason Mills said.
“At the time he was getting the chemo, he was on a number of medicines and every time we’d check in the nurses would run down through them and he would do all that himself. He knew all the names of them, the doses he took morning and evening. They were impressed by that because a lot of adults don’t know all that stuff.”
Zak Mills also kept up on his schoolwork throughout his treatments, including attending math classes from home via Facetime computer application when possible.
“When I was just getting fluids and not having chemo Dad would say, ‘Why don’t you do your reading or math?’ So I’d just chip away at it,” Zak said. “I made honor roll all four quarters.”
While he was unable to reach his original goal of recuperating in time to join his soccer team for preseason practices, Zak Mills returned to classes on a part-time basis at the start of the new school year.
He received his final chemotherapy treatment Sept. 22, and the next week was cleared to return to sports activities — in time for his soccer team’s final two regular-season matches and playoff game.
“Zak started going to school off and on after Labor Day, when he wasn’t having treatments he was going,” Jason said. “Since his last treatment he’s been going pretty much nonstop.”
Zak Mills may be best known around Eastern Maine basketball circles for his presence around the Penquis Valley boys high school team.
When the Patriots’ won the 2013 Class C state title under former head coach and current athletic director Tony Hamlin — Jason Mills was an assistant coach on that team — Zak was awarded one of the team’s championship rings for his contributions.
In turn, the community has supported the Mills family throughout its recent ordeal, organizing several fundraising events including a benefit basketball game and a benefit miniature golf tournament.
In addition, the 2015 Penquis Valley Middle School yearbook was dedicated to Zak, who was able to participate in the year-ending assembly with his peers through Skype.
“It meant a lot, especially all the support from the alumni,” Zak said.
Zak will assume a similar supportive role for his father’s team this winter, though he’ll have to work around conflicts between his middle-school games and practices — he went on to earn a roster spot — and the high school schedule.
Those conflicts include a special weekend in early December, when he and his family will travel to Durham, North Carolina, to watch the defending national champion Duke University men’s basketball team play the University of Buffalo at historic Cameron Indoor Stadium. The trip was arranged through Make-A-Wish America, which grants the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses.
“We’re leaving Dec. 4, and the game is on Dec. 5, which is dad’s birthday so it will be cool for him,” Zak said.
After that trip to see his beloved Blue Devils, Zak Mills is most looking forward to a return to full normalcy after nearly a year of anything but normalcy in his life.
“Just stay strong and do what you can to get through it,” is Zak’s advice for others who might land in a similar situation. “I had weird food cravings, as Dad would call it, but if you like something, get it. If something doesn’t taste good, say you don’t want it.”