Riding prayer wave: First Flight High School student-athlete battles cancer

Published 2:48 pm Thursday, March 16, 2023

Say a prayer for Gwendalyn Botson today.

The 18-year-old First Flight senior student-athlete has been in an all-out war with stage 4 cancer for a year now. She missed school and her lacrosse match last week when she landed back in a Virginia hospital.

Fortunately, she didn’t need surgery again, but the pain was awful, her mother Victoria said. According to a CaringBridge journal entry Sunday, March 12, Gwen was released from Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk just in time for an important family event.

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“We did it!” she said. “Well Gwendalyn did it and I just follow along.

“She was discharged in enough time to make it to Papa Joe’s surprise 80th birthday party!” Victoria said. “She let the doctors and nurses know that this was a priority!”

The happy mom also thanked everyone who have helped with logistics, love and more.

“Y’all it takes a village and we love ours!” Victoria said. “I truly believe Gwendalyn is riding the wave of your prayers, so thank you.”

And it’s with help like this that the Botsons have stayed on track to help Gwen the best they can during these painful past 12 months. This close-knit family with military roots has forged ahead united despite the numerous battles.

They thank the community who has stepped up to help Gwen in countless ways.

Gwendalyn did suit up for lacrosse practice the week before last and she came home looking healthy, happy and strong. Her light burns bright.

Loud music blaring from her car announces her arrival at the family’s home, which is tucked away in the trees of Chicahauk in Southern Shores. That day, she had been to both school and practice.

“I am still a starter!” she exclaims to Victoria and her brother, Logan, 16, who had just gotten back from the Nighthawks men’s lacrosse field. They both plan to wear No. 21 jerseys this season.

“Things are going good right now,” Victoria said, smiling.

Logan comments about her music.

“She likes it loud,” he said. The pair joke and play fight for fun.

Gwen is clad in her First Flight hoodie: “Practice was freezing!”

Her short hair was wild: “It looks like an angry ocean!” Victoria said.

Nighthawks women’s coach Steve Morris has nothing but wonderful things to say about her.

“Gwen is the type of player every coach loves to have,” he said, “someone always willing to do whatever needs to be done to help the team.”

An example of this happened in her sophomore season, Morris said.

“We didn’t have a goalie and she stepped up, never having played the position and played and helped us win a conference title,” he said.

She also leads by example.

“[Gwen] shows up every day and works hard,” coach Morris said. “She wants to compete [even] with all that’s going on.

“It shows her teammates that they should match her dedication and desire to work through adversity to achieve a goal,” he said. “Things can always be tougher than what they think.”

Gwen has always been a great teammate, Morris said, always supporting those around her and willing to do what’s needed for the team.

“We’re super excited for that she’s able to compete this season and inspire us to continue to work and strive for a goal,” the coach said.

Another coach that’s all about Gwen is Molly Lehman-Lewis, of Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, who has recruited Gwen to play for their Division II program.

“To know Gwen is to love her,” she said. “She is a mature soul, feisty and fun natured.

“She is your textbook ‘good spirit,’ meaning she finds the positive and is quick to dig her heels in and smile no matter the circumstance,” Lehman-Lewis said.

“At Belmont Abbey we are forming and developing student athletes to pursue excellence and virtue,” she added. “And she really personifies that.

“She keeps her head up, remains open, and has so much character and strong will in spite of really anything thrown her direction,” the coach said.

Lehman-Lewis said that these are the traits of someone who will be successful in every facet of life.

“When we recruit student athletes, it is a two-way street,” she said. “We will help them grow but people like Gwen will help everyone in our community grow.”

Gwendalyn has many positives in her life, but daily, how does she feel?

“Mornings are not great,” Gwen said. “I never feel good and don’t really sleep well.

“I don’t remember the last time I slept and didn’t wake up two times,” she said.

The journey has been long and stressful, with many different hospitals and various doctors and nurses. It had a harsh start, too, last March.

“It was shocking,” Victoria said. “During an ultrasound, tumors the size of a small basketball, two baseballs and one golf ball” were detected.

Eventually Gwen was seen at VCU Hospital in Richmond. The doctors said it was stage 4 cancer. Four rounds of chemotherapy ensued.

Then they removed all of Gwen’s reproductive organs because of the ovarian, uterine and cervical cancer. Three more rounds of chemo were endured, Victoria said.

“Seven is the most they can do,” Gwen said. “It was not fun.”

Next, radiation treatments started. Since that time, the Botsons have strived for normalcy, but that’s been punctuated with emergency runs back to hospitals.

A whole year of this. At one point, however, she felt good enough to go snowboarding. She loves surfing, too. And skating, skiing and body boarding, Gwen added.

And just recently, Gwen appeared physically fit, happy and ready to take on the world. But that was just before this last hospital stay last week.

Throughout it all, Victoria says Gwen has been tough.

Gwen got hooked up to see Dispatch and O.A.R. last summer in Virginia Beach and was honored at Surfin’ Spoon.

“The Hines – they hooked her up big time!” Victoria said. Others made a giant heart out on the ocean beach.

“The teachers are gracious and giving … balloons and packages,” she added. “The Good Guys basketball, they made ornaments during tourney.”

Artist Megan Rubino shares a lot of love with Gwen on her OBX Cares Facebook page. She also dedicated a neat design of a girl on a cut back. It was offered on trucker caps for sale with proceeds going to Gwen.

At the house, there are banners, a surfboard, football and basketball all signed with encouraging messages to her. The Throwdown Surf Classic last fall helped with fundraising.

As Victoria explains where all the swag came from, Gwen’s smiling and joking with Logan, who seems to enjoy egging her on. They are play fighting again.

A lot of family photos adorn the walls of the Botson home and feature Gwen, Logan, dad Ross and eldest brother Ezekial, 22. Logan and Gwen were born at Ft. Bragg, Victoria said.

As Gwen and Logan tussle, Victoria shakes her head and offers final thoughts.

“She’s pretty cool, a wicked chick,” the mom said. “People have been really good to her.”

For those who would like to help Gwen and the Botsons with medical expenses, there’s a GoFundMe fundraiser page organized by Jada Lancsek, which may be found at gofundme.com/f/gwens-cancer-diagnosis.

Many other people have also done tremendous things to help Gwendalyn, but perhaps it’s their faith that keeps her riding a wave of prayer power.