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Ohio High Schooler Wrestling Senior Season with Lung Cancer

By Loren Nelson, 02/08/18, 10:45AM CST


Justin Sears, who is 11-3 this season at 182 pounds, is scheduled to undergo surgery in March

Two months ago, it looked as if Justin Sears’ high school career would end on an operating table. He was supposed to undergo five weeks of radiation treatment followed by surgery to remove a tumor in his chest.

Ohio high schooler Justin Sears is 11-3 this season despite wrestling with lung cancer.

None of it made sense to Justin Sears.

Not the six bouts with pneumonia in less than two years. Not the repeated trips to doctors who sent him home with short-term antibiotics and no long-term answers. Not the suffocating feeling that engulfed him when matches stretched into the third period.

Something bigger was at the root of his respiratory issues, and the Ohio high school wrestler knew it.

His chest-related issues flared up again in December. Sears began coughing up blood and having difficulty breathing. He went back for the doctor and this time underwent a CT scan, which revealed a mass in his chest. At first, his doctor thought it was dried-up mucus blocking the airway, but she ordered a bronchoscopy to get a look inside his respiratory system and discovered it was something else — a tumor.  

“I didn’t think I’d be able to finish my senior year, so I was pretty bummed out about that,” Sears said. “That was really the only thing that affected me. I wasn’t like (concerned with) the cancer. It was just wrestling.”

Two months ago, it looked as if Justin Sears’ high school career would end on an operating table. He was supposed to undergo five weeks of radiation treatment followed by surgery to remove the tumor. Then his medical team changed its course of action, postponing radiation and removing part of the tumor. Another operation is scheduled for after the season to get the rest. 

So, yes, you’re reading this correctly: Justin Sears is wrestling his senior season with lung cancer.

“I’ve been in wrestling a long time and I haven’t heard of anyone fighting through a disease and continuing to wrestle,” said Randy Jenkins, who coaches Sears at Stow-Monroe Falls High School. “He’s a rare breed. I think what makes him so special has a lot to do with his background growing up. He’s always had to fight for what he wants.”

Sears said he bounced around through five school districts as his parents struggled to make enough to pay rent each month. In middle school, he eventually landed in a place that has become home to him — the school in Stow, a community of 35,000, located just outside Akron.

He opted to live with his 21-year-old sister to remain enrolled at Stow-Monroe Falls when his parents found a place further away from the school district, and he’s become an uplifting figure in the community.

“There’s not many ways you can handle it,” Sears said. “I could be devastated and not bring something good out of it. I make the best out of the situation.”

Jenkins said Sears has inspired his teammates and brought the roster closer together this season.

“He’s just a good kid who works hard,” Jenkins said. “I think he’s teaching the team and other people in the community that if you have something, you can get through it. There’s a lot of support out there. Just work hard and don’t lay around moping. He brings so much energy to the room.”

Jenkins said minor-injury complaints have been at an all-time low this year for his team. After all, it’s hard to get sympathy for aches and pains when someone else on the team is battling cancer. A strange thing happened to Sears, too, after the diagnosis. He actually came back with more stamina when he returned to the mat last month.

“I wrestled with pneumonia for a long time and I’d be at practice with fevers and coughing the whole time,” he said. “It’s better, it healed the pneumonia and that’s better. For now, I’m used to it.”

Jenkins said Sears “was working on probably half a lung for a few years.” It makes sense now, but in the past, coaches and teammates were perplexed watching Sears struggled to hold onto third-period leads.

“There would be matches last year that he would be winning, almost tech falling the guy and then all of a sudden he’s losing 15-14 or getting pinned,” Jenkins said. “We’d say, ‘Justin, what’s wrong?’ He’d say, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

Sears — an Ohio State fan who lists Kyle Snyder, Jordan Burroughs, Bo Jordan and Spencer Lee as some of his favorite wrestlers — is doing his best to end matches early. He’s 11-3 this season at 182 pounds. Each of his wins have come via pin or technical fall.

A bigger battle looms in March when he’s scheduled to undergo surgery to remove the tumor — and possibly one of his lungs. But Sears, who wants to someday join the Marines and work in law enforcement, has some wrestling goals to chase first. He wants to finish the season on the podium at the Ohio state tournament.  

“That would be my biggest goal,” he said. “But more than anything, I just want to give it my best and be proud of what I did.”

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