An open letter to NBA prospect Andrew Jones from another player fighting leukemia

The Dagger
New Paltz guard Nick Paquette hopes his story will provide Texas star <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/242084/" data-ylk="slk:Andrew Jones">Andrew Jones</a> with strength, inspiration and hope. (Photo credit: Daniel Perkins and AP)
New Paltz guard Nick Paquette hopes his story will provide Texas star Andrew Jones with strength, inspiration and hope. (Photo credit: Daniel Perkins and AP)

After he discovered that Texas guard Andrew Jones had been diagnosed with leukemia last week, Nick Paquette reached out to Yahoo Sports about sharing his story with the Longhorns star and future NBA prospect. 

Paquette, a guard at Division III SUNY New Paltz, has been battling leukemia for the past year. Below is his open letter to Jones about the fight ahead: 

Dear Andrew,

I had just finished practice last Wednesday afternoon when a text message from my mom popped up on my phone.

That was how I learned there was another college basketball player about to begin the fight with leukemia that I’ve waged for the past year.

When I read about your diagnosis, Andrew, I couldn’t help but recall my own struggle. I thought about the shock and terror I felt when I learned I had leukemia, the frustration of not having the energy to get out of bed while in the hospital and the challenge of gradually working back into basketball shape once I came home.

Knowing that another 20-year-old college sophomore would be embarking on a similar journey made me want to help. I certainly don’t have a potential NBA career riding on my recovery like you do, nor do I even know if we have exactly the same type of leukemia or not, but I’d like to think my story can provide you strength, inspiration and above all else hope.

I read that you experienced persistent fatigue and exhaustion in the weeks leading up to your diagnosis. I know all too well what that’s like.

Every day last season, I felt tired and lethargic. I lacked my usual strength and explosiveness during games and I’d come out of the locker room afterward sunken-eyed and ghostly pale. I’m 6-foot-3, and I often didn’t even have the energy to try to drive to the hoop or dunk.

While in hindsight I recognize I should have gone to a doctor and gotten checked out, at the time I brushed off my fatigue as a product of pushing my body to its limit every day in practice and the weight room. I figured I could just push through the rest of the season and then once that was over my body would get the rest it needed.

The first red flag something was really wrong arrived late in the season when I took a knee to the hip and it left me with a severe bruise all the way down my leg. I thought that was weird but our trainers just advised me to stay off my leg a couple days. When I resumed playing again, I didn’t think much of it.

The second warning sign occurred during Easter break last April when I was helping my dad with some yard work. When I accidentally looked up at the sun, it left me with a blind spot in one eye that I could neither blink nor rub away.

Since my vision didn’t improve after I returned to school, I finally made an appointment with an eye doctor. She examined my eyes, quickly became concerned and referred me to a nearby retina specialist.

The next morning, my dad drove 120 miles from our home in Smithtown to my dorm at New Paltz so I didn’t have to go to my appointment alone. The retina specialist I saw recommended I get blood tests and informed me I had Roth’s spots, white-centered retinal hemorrages that are often symptoms of a more serious condition.

From there, the process was swift and scary. On April 29, 2017, six days after my 20th birthday, I was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer that originates in the bone marrow and causes the body’s white blood cells to mutate and multiply at an alarming rate. The average person has about 5,000-7,000 white blood cells in their body. I had about 400,000, which crowded out the other components of my blood and led to weakness, fatigue and increased risk of infection.

I’m sure it was tough to hold it together when you learned you had leukemia, Andrew. Honestly, for me, it was terrifying. I wondered if I would even survive, if I would live through all this.

After I received my diagnosis, my mom rushed me to the ICU at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. The six days I spent there were probably the hardest of my life. I was bed-ridden the whole time. I was hooked up to all sorts of machines. I was undergoing chemotherapy every day. It was brutal. I felt mentally and physically drained. I didn’t want to eat. I really didn’t want to do anything.

When my mom stopped at Chipotle to get me something to eat on the way home from the hospital, I was so weak that I couldn’t walk from the car to the restaurant. My bones ached and my muscles were sore. I hardly had the strength to get out of bed the next couple weeks and I dropped 25 pounds.

What reassured me even while I was bed-ridden was that my doctors were always optimistic I’d make a longterm recovery and be able to lead a normal life. They told me that I’d be able to return to school and perhaps even play high-level basketball again if my body felt up to it.

Nick Paquette is starting for Division III New Paltz this season despite his leukemia diagnosis last year. (Marissa Contelmo)
Nick Paquette is starting for Division III New Paltz this season despite his leukemia diagnosis last year. (Marissa Contelmo)

Once I heard that, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would get back on the court. Basketball is in my genes. It has been my passion since kindergarten. I wasn’t going to let leukemia stop me from doing what I love.

Something that made my goal more challenging was that I couldn’t find any other basketball players my age who had overcome leukemia and rejoined their teams. There was no blueprint for my recovery the way there is for a player trying to bounce back from a fractured wrist or a torn ACL.

Lacking a proven plan of attack, I improvised. I made it my goal to do a little bit more each day than I’d done before.

Two weeks after I came home from the hospital, I found the strength to climb out of bed and shoot 10 free throws in the driveway while my dad rebounded for me. The next day I shot 20. Walks around the neighborhood turned into jogs. Sets of push-ups gradually gave way to lifting weights. By the middle of the summer, I played in my first pickup game.

My doctor cleared me to play again for New Paltz just before our Nov. 17 season opener at Muhlenberg College. Hearing my name called when the starting lineups were introduced was an amazing feeling and a reminder of how far I’d come in six months. I logged 28 minutes that day and scored 13 points. The very next day against Rutgers-Camden, I knocked down seven 3-pointers in 33 minutes and led my team in scoring and rebounding.

We’re now more than halfway through our season, and I feel the best I have in two years. I have energy again. I can dunk again. I feel rejuvenated, fresh and ready to go.

I do take a strict regimen of pills every day to keep my white blood cell count from multiplying again and visit my doctor for a checkup every few months, but my body has gradually adjusted to the treatment and the number of abnormal cells in my blood continues to decrease. I still experience a little more fatigue or soreness than I used to after practices and games, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.

What’s more, battling leukemia has provided me with a sense of perspective that I lacked before. I appreciate it every single time I wake up in the morning and every single time I set foot on the basketball floor. I don’t take losses quite so hard now because just being able to play feels like a victory.

My prayers are with you, Andrew. I sincerely hope your fight against leukemia has the same outcome mine has. I hope you’re back on the floor starring for Texas next season and working to achieve your NBA dreams.

If I could give you any advice, it would be to stay strong, keep a positive mindset every day and truly believe that you’re going to get through this. It’s really all about progressing every day and taking baby steps toward your goal. Obviously there will be tough days, but push through them.

Don’t let leukemia stop you from doing something that you love.

Nick Paquette rises up to shoot a jumper in a game earlier this season. (Reid Dalland Photography)
Nick Paquette rises up to shoot a jumper in a game earlier this season. (Reid Dalland Photography)

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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