Rare cancer claims young man's life

In memory of Shay Nelson, 1999-2019.
In memory of Shay Nelson, 1999-2019.

Hazleton, Pa. - On July 23, the Penn State Hazleton community was shaken by the tragic passing of Shay Nelson (Blakeslee, Pa.), a sophomore at the campus and a member of the men's basketball program who won the adoration of everyone he met. Shay fought against a rare form of cancer for eight months before losing that battle at just 20 years old.  

Shay Nelson was a student-athlete at Penn State Hazleton for the better part of three semesters, impacting the basketball program on and off the court. A rare talent who could play anywhere on the court, Shay averaged double-figures in the scoring column for the lions and consistently ranked as one of the team's most efficient scorers, rebounders and defenders.

He played a huge role in Hazleton's 2017-18 playoff surge, helping the Lions to three straight wins to end the season. Over that stretch, Shay averaged 19.7 points per game including a career high 27 points in one of the most thrilling games in recent memory, a triple overtime win at Penn State Schuylkill on February 9, 2018. Nelson returned to the court in the fall of 2018 for his second season and got off to a fantastic start but as fate would have it, Shay's season and ultimately his life would be cut short by a dreadful disease.

Perhaps his greatest gift was an innate ability to make those around him feel good. He cared deeply for others and could instantly make your day better with nothing more than a smile. That selfless attitude earned him a special spot in the hearts of the faculty, staff and fellow students, especially his teammates.

While we at Penn State grieve for his family and friends, we cherish the memories given to us by an immensely talented young man and a truly compassionate soul taken from us much too soon.

Shay's journey was recently chronicled by our friends at the Standard Speaker news outlet and we are privileged to share a touching article written and compiled by sportswriter Steve Stallone. Many thanks to him and his team for a fitting tribute to a great young man.


Remembering Shay

By Steve Stallone
Hazleton Standard-Speaker

"The biggest smile in the room," Pocono Mountain West basketball coach Rich Williams remembered. "He was a wonderful human being, a really kind soul who was nice to everybody."

"We fed off what he brought to the gym every day," added Penn State Hazleton point guard Robbie Hopkins. "He always came with positive energy and that rubbed off on us."

"He could fly through the air, and he could dunk like no other," marveled former Penn State Hazleton player Nick Nowak.

"He just outworked everybody," noted PSU Hazleton basketball coach Jeff Rush. "He was there always giving 100 percent, day in and day out, with a smile on his face.
"He was just a tremendous personality and a tremendous human being."

The Penn State Hazleton and Pocono Mountain West basketball communities are still in shock, trying to come to grips with the fact that their beloved friend and teammate, a young man who had so much love for life, is now gone.

Shay Nelson, who captivated his teammates with his basketball talents and passion, and passed on his infectious smile to everyone he encountered, lost his private eight-month battle with cancer in late July. He was just 20 years old. His passing has and will continue to leave a void at PM West, where he helped the Panthers to a District 11 Class 6A championship, and at Penn State Hazleton, where he touched an entire campus in the short time he was there.

"He was a wonderful kid, and a really, really good teammate. I don't think you'd find one person who'd ever say a bad word about the kid," said Williams, an assistant coach on the Panthers' 2016-17 title team. "He was our sixth man, came off the bench. He was one of those guys who would run through a brick wall for you at any time."

"He was so well-liked on campus. All he did was smile. He lit up the gym," said Rush, who recruited Nelson to Penn State Hazleton for the 2017-18 season. "He was friendly, respectful. He was well-liked by his professors. Everybody on campus said nothing but great things about Shay Nelson," added Rush. "He will be missed by our campus and by our team, without a doubt."


Strong start

Nelson was by no means the star, or even a starter, as a senior at Pocono Mountain West. His importance to the team, however, was invaluable. "Every team needs role players in this day and age. There are not enough kids who are willing to embrace their role and be a star in their role, and he was," Williams said. "He was the first player off the bench, and he provided us energy. He provided us with another big guard."

His versatility is what coaches loved about Nelson. "He could do a little bit of everything," said Williams. "He was able to shoot it, he was able to drive it, he could rebound it, he played defense. Guys like him are always the unsung heroes on championship teams."

Nelson may have been flying under the radar at Pocono West, but he was certainly on Rush's radar screen in Hazleton. "I didn't see him play until probably his senior year, but just his athleticism is what stood out," remembered Rush. "He was an extremely quick leaper, he played so much bigger than his 6-foot-2 size. He loved to rebound and battle underneath. "We have a little pipeline going with (Pocono West), and we still do. They're tough kids, they know how to play, they're battle-tested, and that's what Shay was."

Nelson arrived at PSU Hazleton and hit the ground running, garnering a starting spot on the Lions' 2017-18 team as a freshman. "He came in as a freshman and he really stood out, the way he can play above the rim, rebound, attack," Rush said. "We played him at the 3 even though he was undersized. He did everything you asked him to do. He worked his butt off day in and day out. He came to practice and he just outworked everybody. He earned a starting spot."

And he failed to disappoint. In his freshman season, Nelson averaged 28 minutes per game, was among the team leaders in scoring (10.8 points per game), rebounding (6.8) and assists (1.4), and was a defensive standout. "We called him a defensive stud," Rush said. "I think when he came to Penn State Hazleton I think he was a little in shock. I don't think he expected to play 25-30 minutes a game, or to have a play called for him. He was just such a tremendous fit."

Current Penn State Hazleton Director of Athletics Patrice Lombard remembered watching Nelson from the stands as a fan herself that first season. "He played hard when he played," Lombard recalled. "Freshman year I would go to games and watch. He was a good player. As a fan, I saw something special in him then."

"Shay had an awesome freshman year," stated Nowak, who started alongside Nelson that season. "Shay was a glass cleaner. He was an awesome basketball player. Nobody could jump with Shay. When people would see him skying in warm-ups, they were scared of him."

The transition to college academics proved a tougher challenge for Nelson. "Really, I was most proud of him for how he battled in the classroom," Rush said. "It was a little tough for him at first, but he really buckled down when things got tough in his freshman year." With help from PSU Hazleton Student Success Center Coordinator Tammy Spevak and the "Stars Program," and a lot of hard work from Shay himself, he began to soar above the rim academically as well. "It looked like it may not work out for him, but he really, really came through for us and for himself in the classroom," Rush said, "He really hit the books when he needed to."


Sophomore season
After a strong start to his college career, Nelson was back on campus last fall, and picked up where he left off early in the basketball season. He started the Lions' first six games in 2018, bumping his scoring average up to 12 points per game, and beefing up his rebounding (7.7) and assist (2.3) numbers as well. "Shay was off to a tremendous start," Rush said. "He was one of the best sophomores in our league."

"He was very athletic, and he always brought his best. He knew where to be on the court," said Hopkins, a Crestwood High School grad and the Lions' starting point guard the past two seasons. "He and I kind of had a connection," Hopkins said, pointing to a handful of alley-oops they executed. "One of my best memories of that connection was when we played King's College last year. We had a 2-on-1 fast break and I threw a bounce pass to Shay and he dunked it. It capped a 15-0 run. I'll always remember that."

"He helped us beat King's and he had a tremendous game," remembered Rush. No one knew at the time that it would be one of his final games for the local Lions.


Shocking diagnosis

"Not too much longer than that, right before we got into our league play, he said he didn't feel good and his stomach kind of hurt. He wasn't eating much," Rush recalled. "That lasted a few days, and he wasn't getting much energy. After a week or so, we figured something wasn't right, so he ended up going to the emergency room."

A battery of tests revealed Shay was suffering from Stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer, which produces tumors throughout the body, particulary in the stomach, intestines and colon. This type of cancer is prevalent in young adults. As in Shay's case, symptoms may not appear until a tumor reaches an organ. "He had this illness inside, but he was still this strong young man, going about his business," Lombard said. "I was shocked when I found out what it was. We thought maybe it was Crohn's disease or something simpler. We never thought he would have what he had."

Rush said Shay went to Texas where some of his family lived, right before the first semester break. His family kept the seriousness of his illness private as he battled the disease.
"He was playing really well, then he got sick and the coaches said he wasn't able to play anymore this season," Nowak said. "We would call him on weekend trips, but he'd never pick up. I think he was just too upset that he wasn't with us."

"I knew what Shay was going through and my coaching staff knew, but the team never really knew or understood just how sick Shay was," Rush said. "The family didn't really want us to share that with the guys. Shay never told them. He kind of just wanted to fight it on his own, do his best, and he didn't want anybody worrying about him. That's the kind of kid Shay was."

Adjusting in midseason without their inspirational leader and one of their best players wasn't easy for the Lions. "I think what we missed most was his versatility, to be able to play multiple positions. He could play 2-3-4," Hopkins said. "We also missed him at practice and in the locker room."

"Honestly you don't replace him," Rush said. "He's a 6-2 kid who can hit a three, dunk a ball with two hands, rebound like crazy, defend like crazy. Those guys are few and far between in this area. We replace him, but obviously you don't get the same production. He was a unique talent at our level for our program."

As the Lions battled on without him, Shay continued his battle. And by the spring, he appeared to be winning that battle. In May, test results revealed no active cancerous tumors, so hope remained high. Unlike some cancers, Stage 4 neuroendocrine cancer can be beaten if found early enough, and there was hope for his recovery. Less than three months later, in late July, the shocking news came. Shay had lost his battle with cancer.


Gone too soon

Rush said he talked with Shay's father the day after his passing and relayed the news to his players. "We did have a brief talk with some of them. They were definitely in shock," Rush said. "I was shocked to find out. We knew he was sick, but not really sick," Nowak confessed.

The news hit his high school community hard as well. "No one in our program knew. It was total shock," Williams offered. "I had a little inkling something was wrong. During the season I didn't see him in the boxscore."

"It's terrible. It's the C word again," Williams said. "Unfortunately we all know people and we all have people in our lives that have battled that. It's a tough pill to swallow."

The toughest thing is knowing that if detected early, neuroendocrine cancer is treatable and manageable. Lombard and Spevak said it is the family's desire to help spread the word to teens and young adults in hope that what happened to Shay won't happen to others. They have passed along links to websites that can educate you on neuroendocrine and colorectal cancer. "They want to get word out that Shay's type of cancer, as well as colorectal cancer, can indeed occur in teens and young adults," Spevak said. "Often times it's mistaken for other things, like IBS or Crohn's, or even being a stressed out college student."

"They want to urge the youth to know about their family medical history, and to let someone know when something is going on with their body — or a friend's — that isn't typical. Shay's family really wants to bring awareness to young adults," added Lombard. "If they have symptoms, they need to get themselves checked."


Tribute to Shay

A celebration of life ceremony for Shay "Butter" Nelson was held Sunday at The Mountain Center (formerly the Coolbaugh Elementary School), 354 Memorial Drive (Route 611), Tobyhanna. In addition, condolences can be sent to Shay's grandmother, Geneva Booker, at P.O. Box 178, Blakeslee, Pa., 18610. Donations in Shay's memory can be made to Penn State Hazleton THON.

The plans are already in the works at Penn State Hazleton to honor Shay once school is back in session and when the 2019-20 basketball season arrives. "As a campus, we are going to honor Shay at one of our home games," Lombard said, noting it will likely be the Lions' first home game, set for Tuesday, Nov. 19. "I think maybe we should wear a patch on our uniforms with Shay's name or number, something to remember him by," Hopkins offered. "I think once we get back together as a team, we'll talk about things like that. "I know we will definitely thinking about Shay this season and dedicating our season to him."

For more information on neuroendocrine cancer, colorectal cancer, early detection, treatment and support, please access the following websites: http://www.carcinoid.org; www.lacunaloft.org
A recent article that appeared in the New York Times also focuses on cancer in young adults. It can be viewed at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/31/health/colon-cancer-young.html