John and Lisa Notchey were overcome with emotion late last month when they saw the front door of their Bethlehem home decorated as a tradition the day before the Liberty wrestling team’s annual Senior Night. Their son, John Jr., was among the Hurricanes who were going to be recognized before their final home match of the season. The hugs and tears were not about the realization that their son’s high school wrestling career was nearly over. It was about him returning to the sport he loved since he was 6 after having beaten an opponent far more challenging than any of them ever could have imagined.
The 18-year-old Notchey took down Stage IIA Nodular sclerosis Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“We never thought he’d get back to this point,” Lisa Notchey said.
Notchey Jr. endured two 84-day chemotherapy cycles and a stem cell transplant. He missed most of the last two years of wrestling.
The emotional roller coaster makes it hard still for his parents to talk about the traumatic experience.
“I walked around our living room after getting the news [the first time],” Notchey’s dad said, “saying that it should have been me.”
The Notchey family moved to Bethlehem from North Plainfield, N.J., when John Jr. was 5 because they thought it would be a better place for their only son to grow up.
The next year Notchey Sr. took his son to West Bethlehem wrestling sign-ups. Notchey Jr. was all in.
“I went to the first practice and was like, ‘Where’s the ring?’” Notchey Jr. said. “I thought it was WWE wrestling.”
Despite the lack of costumes, face paint and a ring, Notchey Jr. stuck with the sport from Day 1. He was a District 11 JV third-place finisher as a 182-pound sophomore. He was expected to anchor the top of coach Brandon Hall’s lineup for the next two years.
But that projected path veered off course quickly a month later when Notchey Jr. noticed a growth on the low side of his left shoulder. After blood work and an X-ray, Notchey Jr.’s pediatrician sent him to see a cancer specialist at Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Cedar Crest campus.
Nodular sclerosing Hodgkin lymphoma is the most common — and most curable — type of Hodgkin lymphoma. It is seen most in those ages 15 to 35.
The cancer was confirmed and a treatment plan including the first 84-day chemotherapy cycle was scheduled.
“It was really scary,” Notchey Jr. said, “because just the thought that it was me. You never think it’s going to be you.”
The parents felt like a 400-pound man jumped off the top rope of a WWE ring and crushed their hearts.
“I work in a garage,” Notchey Sr. said. “There was an oil drum, me and a tire iron. There was a fight. The oil drum lost.”
“It’s the worst thing you could ever hear,” Lisa Notchey added. “Everything came crashing down so fast.”
Notchey Jr. went to Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital to have a port placed in his chest ahead of chemotherapy. He spent the first three days of chemo treatments in the hospital, then did them as an outpatient.
It was four 21-day cycles getting chemo the first three days of each week.
Good news came at the 42-day mark. Notchey Jr. said the cancer was deemed not active.
Notchey Jr. also gained perspective. He saw children a lot younger than him during his three inpatient days who were in a lot worse shape than he was.
He did his best to play the role of big brother.
“There was a girl, McCoy,” he recalled. “We played with Barbies and dollhouses together. It didn’t matter to me what we were doing. As long as she was happy.”
Notchey Jr. also played video games with the younger boys. It was the best medicine because it took his mind off the obstacles he was facing.
When Day 84 ended in October 2020, Notchey Jr. was given a clean bill of health. He had to stay at home and avoid physical activity until his body recovered and his immune system became stronger.
About 90 percent of those with Nodular sclerosis Hodgkin’s lymphoma survive and are likely cured, according to multiple medical websites.
There was light at the end of the tunnel for Notchey Jr. The Liberty junior returned to school last year and wrestling practice, albeit it for a short time. With the limited schedule because of COVID-19, he opted to wait until next year to wrestle.
But like a WWE match, a villain returned to the ring to blindside the competitor.
In March 2021, a year after the original diagnosis, Notchey Jr.discovered a golf ball-sized growth on the right side of his chest. Cancer was back.
Just like the oil drum in the New Jersey garage the previous year, a wall in Notchey Jr.’s room was the recipient of an enormous amount of frustration and anger.
“It wasn’t easy,” a tearful Lisa Notchey said.
Another 84-day cycle loomed, but this time with a lesser dose of chemo combined with immunotherapy to let his body attack the cancer, too.
After that, though, there was a stem cell transplant and a three-week stint at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). That stretch tested the Notchey family like nothing before.
Notchey Jr. received intense chemotherapy for the first five days at CHOP, then a day off followed by the transplant. He rode a stationary bike 10 miles a day for those five days. It was his way of coping.
The parents struggled as they watched their son fight again for his life.
“We tried not to fall apart,” Notchey Sr. said.
They also were smacked with the realization that many younger children were fighting cancer with considerably lower odds of a favorable outcome.
“You could hear the kids crying and moaning at all hours of the night,” Lisa Notchey said.
“You would just sit there and shake your head and go, ‘this is just unbelievable,” Notchey Sr. added.
Hall did his best to stay in contact with Notchey Jr. and his parents throughout these two bouts with cancer. COVID made it impossible for him or the Hurricane wrestlers to visit Notchey Jr.
Notchey Jr. was discharged in mid-September from CHOP. He returned a week later to learn that he was doing better than the doctors anticipated. He only needed monthly checkups at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital moving forward.
There has been no relapse since.
Notchey Jr. again returned to school and the wrestling room. He strapped on the headgear for a JV match on Senior Night against Pocono Mountain West.
Hall, who previously was Freedom’s head coach, admittedly struggled to keep his emotions in check in the moments before the Liberty Senior Night celebration on Jan. 20. He coached other wrestlers who overcame significant injuries. He overcame two ACL tears as a high school and college wrestler.
But this was different. This was something that threatened more than a wrestling career.
“I grabbed him by the face,” Hall said. “He was making me cry a little bit. He’s understating it by saying there was a little emotion.
“There were a lot of emotions. Not just from me and him. The whole team. They understood the gravity of the situation.”
Hall did not know what the outcome was going to be when Notchey Jr. faced cancer. The Hurricanes coach only knew his competitor was going to fight it with everything in his being because that’s what he saw in the wrestling room.
“His sophomore year, he trained with Kevin Hennessy, who just beat the [heck] out of him all the time,” Hall said. “I had no doubt John was going to fight this thing because nobody comes in here and gets the [crap] beat out of him and comes back every day with the same fight and focus like he did.”
Notchey Jr. wrestled two varsity matches two days after Senior Night at the Quakertown Duals, then again at Freedom’s Senior Night four days after that.
“We are so happy,” Lisa Notchey said. “We never thought he’d get back to this point again.”
Notchey Jr. got spladled during his first wrestling practice as a 6-year-old and was pounded on by a more experienced teammate every day as a high school sophomore.
The 18-year-old still walks into the Liberty wrestling room every day with a smile on his face. He leaves with a lot of soreness and the reality that he can’t get back those two years.
Notchey Jr. also realizes how much worse things could be. He doesn’t have a varsity win on his resume, but he’s twice beaten cancer.
By Tom Housenick
Story by The Morning Call
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