If hospital-centric TV shows have taught audiences anything, it's how to envision a recovery room. The are standard whitewashed walls commonly described as 'sterile,' a get-well-soon balloon floating around and of course, the patient laying in bed, groggy and hooked up to a bunch of ambiguous tubes. There may even be a relative attached to the patient's hand, grasping, white-knuckled. But then again, there's Hollywood, and there's Zach Lederer.
The Maryland resident, then 18, had just finished undergoing a biopsy for his second brain tumor in six years — as in, his head had been cut open while doctors worked to detach 80 to 90 percent of the growth. Friends lamented the unfairness of Lederer undergoing this ordeal again, but he wanted to showcase his triumph, beating cancer a second time.
“Everybody felt really terrible I had cancer, and there I was perfectly okay with it,” he says. “Cancer could happen to anybody so it may as well be me. I’m truly blessed… to have the opportunity to beat cancer for the second time.”
His silent message was a picture posted on Facebook in his hospital bed while flexing his biceps, a stoic look on his face. “Zaching,” as it came to be known, went viral as pictures came in from all over the world of people assuming the same pose in support of Lederer and the fight against cancer.
An Ongoing Ordeal
Lederer was not a sickly child. But at 12 years old, the sixth grader started having bouts of searing headaches and vomiting, describing the ordeal as a violent pain most people will never experience.
A trip to the pediatrician revealed that it was a brain tumor, and he was rushed to Johns Hopkins University, where he was not expected to live through the night. Dr. Ben Carson, an internationally known neurosurgeon, heard about Lederer and took on his case. In the next week, Lederer underwent five surgeries, followed by a failed biopsy. Part of his skull had to be removed while he was under an induced coma to accommodate the swelling in his brain caused by stimulation from the procedures.
“The first time I realized [it was serious] was when I woke up from the coma and looked at my legs — my knee was the widest part of my leg,” he says.
He even had to learn how to walk again, but none of that really got him down.
“Bet you thought I was going to say I was upset and feeling sorry for myself, right?” Lederer said. “I was just loving life because I was walking again. I was vertical. I had been in a bed for probably two months.”
Later, as a student at Centennial High School, Lederer, an avid sports lover, became the manager of both the football and basketball teams. He was advised to avoid participation in contact sports because of the ventricular shunt implanted into his head to drain all the fluid the tumor had blocked from flowing. A rough hit would require another surgery. But come senior year, Lederer insisted.
“There was certainly a risk. I don’t want to live in a bubble,” he says. “It was so important to me that I got to play, that I got to prove myself to all my buddies.”
After playing cornerback during his senior year and heading off to college that fall, where he manages the university basketball team, he took another blow. As a freshman at the University of Maryland, Lederer discovered he had a brain tumor — again.
“I was telling doctors that I’m way too healthy to have a brain tumor,” he says. “I kept asking ‘do you want me to do pushups, do you want me to run?’ I could do anything, yet I had a brain tumor.”
After the biopsy and the photo that started it all, Zach underwent five chemotherapy treatments and six weeks of radiation to make sure any remnants of the tumor were killed off. In the meantime, he was inundated with pictures of well-wishers ‘Zaching’.
“The very best ones were the ones of the kids in the hospital who were taking the time to show everybody how strong they were,” he says.
The air of defiance in the pose resonated not only with Lederer’s local community, but an international audience. He was surprised to receive friend requests from strangers in Greece and Russia, who told him they saw his story in their local papers.
People are Zaching in the desert, infants are Zaching (with some help), sorority girls, Justin Bieber, ESPN Analyst Michael Wilbon, a guy on a camel, Governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley, high school and university sports teams — the list goes on. There’s even a Tumblr site set up called Zaching Against Cancer for photo submissions.
For Lederer, now 19 and in remission, the future consists of returning to the University of Maryland for this upcoming semester where he will be majoring in broadcast journalism. He hopes to become an inspirational speaker in the future.
“I think the best way I can use my life effectively is to become an inspirational speaker,” he says. “There’d nothing I’d love to do more than give speeches and affect others' lives.”
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.