Alaska's Justin Woods thriving again after surviving bone cancer
Walt Kyle knows all too well what it’s like to be in your 20s, your whole life in front of you, only to be told the results have come back and you have a rare form of cancer.
“It hits you,” the Northern Michigan coach said. “When you’re an athlete and a young man you are typically used to controlling your own destiny over most circumstances by outworking them, so it’s really tough because all of a sudden you realize that your dreams and goals, your life, could be over before you’ve even started it and you have no control over it yourself. You need help.”
Thirty years ago Kyle, 58, had to beat Ewing’s Sarcoma bone cancer not once, but twice in a three-year span. Since then he’s made it a point to reach out to anyone fighting cancer.
Last season Kyle reached out twice in the fraternity of college hockey, calling Drew Brown of Providence and visiting with Justin Woods of Alaska Fairbanks. Both were diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, which typically strikes one in 1 million children and young adults.
Brown, now a graduate assistant with the Friars this season, was going through chemotherarpy treatment during the team’s national title run last season. His teammates wore his number on their helmets during the Frozen Four and dedicated their tournament run to him.
Woods, a junior, missed all of his sophomore season but is back on the ice playing for the Nanooks and is working his way back into form. You can see him Friday on ASN when the Nanooks play at Alabama Huntsville. After barely being able to skate in the summer, the 6-3 defenseman has been moved to the penalty-kill and power-play teams.
“When he was introduced at the Blue-Gold game there was a pretty good crowd on hand and they gave him a standing ovation when he was introduced,” Alaska Fairbanks coach Dallas Ferguson said. “We certainly didn’t know what to expect. What he had was the real deal, but at the same time we never took his name off the board.
“Justin is an NHL prospect, for sure, and I’m starting to see him get back to where he was before the cancer. I’m amazed at the attitude of him and his family through the whole ordeal. There wasn't a day I talked to him that he didn’t come across happy and grateful. I think he used to have dog days at the rink, but now I think he comes with the attitude he’s thankful to be there.”
Woods, like Kyle, said surviving cancer changes your outlook on life. His mom delivered the news in their family living room and he said his first thought was “Will I be able to play hockey again?”
After that, thoughts turned to keeping his limbs. His cancer was discovered when he was getting a cyst removed from his knee and team doctors decided to test it “on the rare chance it might be something else.”
“It hits you and you don’t know what to expect,” Woods said over the holiday break. “They tell you you may be able to play again, or you can lose your leg, or you can die. Pretty straightforward.”
Woods, now 24, was flown to Seattle for treatment and stayed at the Ronald McDonald House. A friend he met there and went through chemotherapy with recently lost his battle with the disease.
“I saw everything in the Ronald McDonald House,” Woods said. “Little kids running around, but happy as ever because they didn’t understand, and little teens more sad because they knew what was going on. It changes you.”
Woods made it through his battle with the help of family, friends and teammates. After a road series last season, the Nanooks stopped in to the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle to see him, and his mom got in touch with Brown’s parents so the players could share their experiences.
“It was good to have someone to go through it with,” Woods said. ”And it was good to talk to Coach Kyle. He sought me out and told me to just get through it, whatever it takes, and life gets better. It turns out the second chemo he went through was the kind I had. He was one of the first to try it.”
Kyle said all the treatments cost him his ability to have children, but he says without his darkest days of cancer he wouldn’t have his four greatest gifts — his adopted children.
“You just have to find a way to get through it and accept you need help and life does get better,” Kyle said. “You’ve just go to do what you have to do to get through it.”
Above: Justin Woods survived bone cancer with the help of family, friends and teammates. (Courtesy Paul McCarthy)
Middle: The Alaska Fairbanks team visited Justin Woods and another patient when he was staying in the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle, where he was being treated for Ewing's Sarcoma. (Courtesy Justin Woods)