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Eight months after cancer diagnosis, Plant’s Jayden Spencer comes off bench to inspire

The 17-year-old junior met his goal of suiting up for the Panthers’ season opener.
Plant High junior Jayden Spencer (23) brings the ball upcourt during his team's season opener at Gaither on Tuesday. Only eight months earlier, he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin large B-cell lymphoma, which required six rounds of intense chemotherapy.
Plant High junior Jayden Spencer (23) brings the ball upcourt during his team's season opener at Gaither on Tuesday. Only eight months earlier, he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin large B-cell lymphoma, which required six rounds of intense chemotherapy. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2022|Updated Dec. 3, 2022

TAMPA — As baskets go, it was a rudimentary left-handed putback off the glass in a lopsided season opener.

As personal milestones go, it may as well have been one shining moment in March.

Plant High junior Jayden Spencer had checked in — for the second time — with two minutes and change to play Tuesday night against Gaither. A black headband covered the thicket of dark curls that have re-sprouted, and his black No. 23 jersey concealed the port above his right pectoral.

On the night’s most poignant possession, the Panthers segued from motion to emotion offense. Spencer caught a pass on the right baseline and squared up to shoot before passing to classmate Christian Brown on the wing. Brown penetrated and missed a contested layup. Junior Ben Jackson rebounded and also missed.

Lanky Gaither junior Marc Fransberg got the rebound, but Spencer swiped it from behind, pivoted to his left and converted the short basket.

For all practical intents, it put the dagger in the Cowboys. And chemotherapy.

From the bleachers, Spencer’s mom whooped.

“My heart is full,” Sherita Spencer said.

Eight months earlier, a diagnosis from nowhere — non-Hodgkin large B-cell lymphoma — had upended the life of this single mom and her only child. Amid the treatments and trauma, numbness and nausea, Spencer’s goal always had been to regain the strength and endurance needed to play for the Panthers varsity his junior year.

“I knew I was going to get back here,” he said.

Longest summer of their lives

In early June, Spencer and Sherita found themselves among a handful of teens, prepubescents and parents inside AdventHealth Training Center, special guests for the Bucs’ “Cut and Color For a Cure” event held in partnership with the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.

The kids shaved heads and/or colored the hair of several players and team officials. Spencer met Devin White, his favorite player. Tom Brady, a willing participant (for the hair-coloring portion) posed for a group photo.

Plant High junior Jayden Spencer, battling large B-cell lymphoma, met his favorite Bucs player, Devin White, during the "Cut and Color For a Cure" fundraiser at AdventHealth Training Center on June 8.
Plant High junior Jayden Spencer, battling large B-cell lymphoma, met his favorite Bucs player, Devin White, during the "Cut and Color For a Cure" fundraiser at AdventHealth Training Center on June 8. [ JOEY KNIGHT | Times ]

At that time, Spencer might have weighed 125 pounds in a waterlogged Panthers uniform. Roughly three months earlier, he had been overcome by a cough and chest pains during basketball practice. Unsatisfied by the diagnosis she received from an urgent-care facility (a simple cough), Sherita took her son to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

After a battery of tests, they learned he had one of the world’s most common types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a ruthless scourge that attacks a type of white blood cell (lymphocytes) that make antibodies to fight infections. About 7% of all childhood cancers are non-Hodgkin lymphomas, according to the American Cancer Society.

“The recovery rate is high, but you know, cancer is a sneaky little disease, so it could go either way,” said Sherita, a U.S. Army veteran and analyst at MacDill Air Force Base. “But they were very optimistic in the studies that they’ve had, and the treatments that they have previously gone through. So they were very optimistic for recovery.”

Optimism was accompanied by rigor. Six times over a four-month period (once every 21 days), Spencer and his mom went to St. Joseph’s, where chemotherapy was siphoned through his body 24 hours at a time. Sherita remained at his side every hour, sleeping on a nearby sofa or recliner.

“It just made you extremely weak,” Spencer said. “You feel like you don’t even want to move sometimes. You just lay down all day.”

Though nausea didn’t kick in until the last couple of cycles, he dropped from 145 pounds — his sophomore playing weight as a member of Plant’s junior varsity — to around 125. The curly brown locks that covered his ears and kissed his neck fell out in clumps.

But hope and faith lingered. So did the collection of Plant basketball coaches and parents that had evolved into a surrogate family. Meals were provided, and Spencer was inundated with his favorite snacks, Gatorade and Goldfish.

“We had gift cards to every restaurant you could think of,” Sherita said. “They were amazing.”

Jayden’s journey

Plant High School junior Jayden Spencer (23) cheers on his teammates from the bench during the Panthers' 62-29 romp of Gaither in the regular season opener Tuesday night. Spencer, who learned Nov. 23 that his large B-cell lymphoma is in remission, played briefly and scored two points.
Plant High School junior Jayden Spencer (23) cheers on his teammates from the bench during the Panthers' 62-29 romp of Gaither in the regular season opener Tuesday night. Spencer, who learned Nov. 23 that his large B-cell lymphoma is in remission, played briefly and scored two points. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Spencer underwent his last 24-hour treatment in late June and attended the first day of school on Aug. 10. Around Labor Day, the Panthers began weight training and conditioning for the 2022-23 season.

“And when we got back going, he was out there,” veteran Panthers coach Joe Willis said. “I was like, ‘Hey, you need to tell me when something’s going haywire, because you’re the only one who knows.’ And he hasn’t once said, ‘I’m not feeling good,’ or ‘Coach, I’m going to throw up.’”

Naturally, Spencer struggled with conditioning at the outset, failing to meet the required time on a few of the gym-floor sprints. But he recaptured his endurance and put on weight in swift order. Meantime, Willis spared no opportunity to use his presence to motivate peers: The kid with cancer is beating you guys.

“He looked really good,” said senior guard Noah Fishman, himself a pediatric-cancer survivor diagnosed as a toddler with a “dumbbell tumor” that originated on his adrenal gland. “You couldn’t even tell that he went through something like that.”

Spencer suited up for a pair of mid-November preseason games as he and his mom waited for word on a spot detected during a final PET scan. A few days later, Sherita found out not only that it was non-cancerous, but that her son was in complete remission.

She sat on the news about 24 hours, waiting to inform him until Nov. 23 — his 17th birthday.

“(God) held what was going to happen next,” she said. “So I’m very grateful that he saw fit to give my son a second chance.”

Her eyes were already glistening as No. 23 — worn in honor of his birth date — participated in Tuesday’s warmups. The actual game time was gravy.

Willis inserted Spencer for the first time midway through the second period, after the Panthers had built a 14-point lead. His first shot, an adrenaline-fueled hoist from the left baseline, was way too strong.

Most glorious air ball his mom had ever witnessed.

“I was really hoping he’d get an opportunity to get in there,” said Willis, whose team rolled to a 62-29 romp. “It’s even crazier that he scored a basket.”

Plant High junior Jayden Spencer (23) guards a Gaither opponent during  his team's 62-29 victory in its season opener Tuesday.
Plant High junior Jayden Spencer (23) guards a Gaither opponent during his team's 62-29 victory in its season opener Tuesday. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Afterward, Willis assembled his team inside a health classroom off the main gym floor for a mostly matter-of-fact postgame address. He elicited applause from the team when he digressed to say that having Spencer back in action was “something that means the world to me.”

Soon thereafter, the cancer conqueror and his mom exited the Gaither gym together, into the north Tampa night. The following day, Spencer would return to St. Joseph’s to have his port removed for good.

Two shining moments in a 24-hour span.

“It was awesome,” said Fishman, cancer-free for well over a decade. “Because everything that goes into it for him, and all that he’s been through, to see him be able to go out there, and then to be able to go out there and score, it was great to see.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls