Like most incoming freshmen, Luke Elder has spent the recent months preparing for his North Carolina career. But there’s one sizable difference: the offensive lineman’s workout routine has overlapped with a bout with cancer.
“I was able to continue working out, continue doing legs – continue everything during the radiation treatment,” Elder said. “The only thing that prevented me from working out was the surgery [after the treatment]. And so for three weeks I wasn’t able to run – I was just able to bench press and work on my upper body.”
Around New Year’s, Elder was diagnosed with myxoid liposarcoma.
While no one certainly wishes to have cancer, Elder recognizes the situation’s silver lining.
“I think there was a lot more positives that came out of it than negatives,” Elder said. “Initially you want to think, ‘Oh God, this horrible thing has happened to me.’ But, I’ve come to realize how great this situation has turned out.”
Case in point: Elder’s experience helped him discover his college major.
“I plan on majoring in radiologic science,” Elder said. “Throughout that time, I went through a lot of different scans and just saw that realm of the medical world. I went through a CT scan, I went through MRIs, X-rays, I actually had radiation treatment.
“I was like, ‘Dang, this is a whole new aspect of it and it’s really interesting. I could really see myself doing that one day.’ I looked it up and not only was it an actual major, but I saw that they had it at UNC. I was like, ‘Dang, maybe this is what I was supposed to be doing all along and that’s why this happened to me.’”
With that in mind, Elder, who has cleared UNC admissions and the NCAA Eligibility Center, has already picked out his first semester classes.
Just as his cancer was a blessing in disguise, Elder believes tearing his ACL last April sent him on his proper course.
“Before I tore my ACL, a lot of things were being told to me by coaches here and there,” Elder said. “Honestly, I think I was close to making the wrong decision about where to go to school. But, I think God intervened in my life and let that happen to me with my ACL in order to lead me to the right place.”
Unfortunately, though, the ACL tear forced Elder to miss his entire senior season. Early on, there was hope he’d return to the lineup before Lagrange (Ga.) High’s final game.
“It was planned for me to make a full recovery no matter what the cost was,” Elder said. “My goal was to be ready to play for UNC – whether that meant missing my entire senior season or not.”
By the end of November, Elder was completely cleared. Promptly, he began preparing for his UNC career. That’s when he discovered a lump on the back of his right thigh.
“As an athlete, I’m really in tune with my body,” Elder said. “When something changes, I notice it. And I felt a lump in my leg. It felt really strange. I was like, ‘Okay, this isn’t normal.’”
When the lump didn’t go away after a few weeks, Elder brought it to his parents’ attention. They decided to get it checked out by a doctor.
“The doctor tried to figure out what it was,” Elder said. “They thought it was benign. So, he scheduled the surgery just to get it taken out, because it was growing.”
The pathology report came back that the lump was cancerous. Elder’s doctor immediately reached out to the surgeon who performed Elder’s ACL surgery to tap into his connections. That resulted in the inclusion of Dr. Brian Brigman, an orthopaedic cancer surgeon at Duke Cancer Center.
“It was a pretty quick chain and we immediately went into figuring out a plan of action and how we were going to treat it,” Elder said. “There was a lot of coordination between doctors at Duke and the doctors here in Lagrange.
“The radiation oncologist started talking to us about the treatment and what we were about to do and how he was going to approach it. You could just tell how he cares about his patients and how good of a job he was going to do. We had all the confidence in the doctors here and the doctors at Duke.”
Beginning in February, Elder went through 28 radiation cycles over a five and a half week period.
“As far as side effects were concerned, I had very, very little,” Elder said. “The only thing I had was just a sun burn.”
A couple of weeks later, Elder had surgery to remove the margins (i.e. the area that the tumor touched inside his body) along with the scar from the initial surgery. The pathology report from that came back clean.
“As of [May] 9th, I was cancer free,” Elder said. “That was an awesome feeling.”
Elder informed the UNC coaches of the situation during his January official visit. Days before the trip, he and his parents had collected all the pertinent facts, including the treatment plan.
“They took it better than we could have ever imagined,” Elder said. “There’s just something about the coaching staff. It starts with Coach [Larry] Fedora, who knows it means a lot to the parents and the player when you can look them in the eyes and tell them honestly that when I committed to them, they committed to me. Twice that has come true.
“When we told him [about the cancer], he didn’t even blink an eye. He said the same thing that he said to me when I had my ACL injury: I still have a spot on the team, no matter what. It got my mom emotional.”
Although Elder never waivered on his UNC commitment, Fedora’s response left no doubt.
“It cemented the fact that UNC was the place I was supposed to be,” Elder said.
As mentioned, Elder’s bout with cancer had minor effects on his UNC preparation. Thus, he has beefed up to 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds. That’s more than ten pounds heavier than when he showed up for Fedora’s Freak Show last June.
“The main thing is [the UNC coaches] want me to show up in shape,” Elder said. “They want me to run and be able to do their workouts, and then they’ll put the good weight on me.”
Chris Kapilovic, UNC's offensive line coach, hasn’t discussed red-shirting with Elder. However, Elder assumes that it will be in his best interest.
Kapilovic has, however, discussed positions. He has instructed Elder to learn both guard and tackle.
“It was very random,” Elder said. “After the official weekend, we were trying to be proactive and get our roommates situation together. I texted Noah, because I’m the closest to him, and I asked him, ‘Who do you want to room with?’ He started naming off names and I just agreed with him. We started texting some of them and some of them had roommates, but the ones who didn’t ended up being our roommates.”
Elder says he will continue to wear No. 79, his high school number, during his UNC career.