Each of the seven finalists for the Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award will have their story featured here. In order to vote for the next Rare Disease Champion, please visit our voting page here. The winner will be announced on February 1st.
College: University of Oklahoma
Rare disease connection: Getting ready for his senior season in Norman, Woods had a unexplained sore throat through spring ball. Then, the glands in his neck got swollen and sore. The immediate thoughts were strep or perhaps mononucleosis. Tests ruled those out. More tests brought the diagnosis that could rocked Woods’ world — Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Less than two weeks after OU’s spring practices ended the 6-4, 293-pound lineman, who has been the Sooners’ deep snapper for three seasons and has played on the offensive line, found himself at the Stephenson Cancer Center in Oklahoma City undergoing four hours of chemotherapy every other week. Woods learned on Nov. 1 that he was in remission.
His Story: Coming off his sophomore season, Oklahoma offensive lineman Austin Woods was anxious to get back on the field this season.
Spring practices and workouts were underway and Woods was ready. Admittedly, while he was feeling fine, he had a persistent sore throat and swollen glands. It didn’t hold him back, but when the symptoms didn’t go away, he decided to get checked out by the team physician.
“I remember him saying that my symptoms weren’t normal,” Woods said.
That’s when the whirlwind of tests, scans and visits to various doctors began. Within 10 days of going to the team doctor, Austin Woods was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I remember the doctor telling me and my parents,” Woods said. “I was shocked.”
Yet at the same time, he didn’t even blink. In fact, he was back at practice the next day.
“I was going to do whatever I could to beat this thing,” Woods said.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. Cells grow abnormally and may spread to the lymphatic system. As the rare disease progresses, it compromises your body’s ability to fight infection.
While Woods’ was about to begin the biggest fight of his life, it looked like football would be put on the back burner.
“I knew I needed 12 rounds of chemotherapy,” Woods said. “After discussing it with the team doctor and trainer, I figured I’d have to redshirt because I’d be too weak.”
But that never happened. Woods was halfway through his treatment by summer and despite feeling fatigued, he decided that he would not redshirt. He wanted to play this season. While that sounds impossible, consider this: somehow, through all the chemotherapy, Woods never lost his hair and actually gained weight.
“I was truly blessed with a body that was able to handle the treatment,” Woods says.
Remarkably, there were times Woods would practice in the morning and then receive a chemo treatment in the afternoon. During the season, the lineman scheduled his chemo treatments on Monday, giving his body time to recover by Saturday. He never missed a game and only missed practice on treatment days.
“I knew it could always be worse,” Woods says. “I have two arms and two legs and the ability to play, so why not?”
Woods’ attitude is truly remarkable. His teammates were inspired. It’s hard to complain about an extra drill or sprint when one can look over at Woods and know while he’s running an extra sprint, he’s also fighting cancer. Not once did Woods feel sorry for himself or want special treatment.
“My parents taught me attitude is the one thing I can control,” Woods commented. “I showed with a positive attitude, I could overcome anything.”
October 1 was Austin’s last chemo treatment. On October 31st, while walking to practice, he received a call from his doctor. He was in remission. Austin says it was an unbelievable feeling to hear the good news.
Woods shares his story with others. He uses Twitter and social media to provide comfort to people who find themselves fighting for their lives.
He believes having a positive mindset is key. If he could play collegiate football and beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma, others can too. He’s inspiring to listen to.
Austin’s prognosis is good. He will have to have frequent body scans and tests to make sure the cancer has not returned. Austin says he’ll go into those tests with the same optimism he did with treatment.
As for his future, Austin tells Uplifting Athletes he’d like to be a coach one day.
If being a motivator is an important aspect of being a good coach, there’s no doubt Austin will succeed. He does so by example. For now, though, he’s looking forward to his senior season. He’s already beat cancer, so how much trouble can an opposing defense be?