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By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
It started out as shortness of breath and a cough. Atticus Spillman and his family thought the teen had either pneumonia or a nasal drip, but X-rays revealed something much more severe.
Spillman had played tennis recreationally since he was 6 years old and had just finished his first season as a member of the Cheyenne Central High School team. He had a solid first season and even beat his dad in a match for the first time that fall.
It was Oct. 23, 2021, that Spillman and his family were hit with a devastating diagnosis. He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Although the cancer had not yet spread to his lungs or heart, inside the 16-year-old’s stomach doctors found tumors a third the size of his chest cavity.
“It was shocking to us,” his mother, Lisa Spillman, said of the news. “I was super scared.”
The pressures facing high schoolers today are already significant without having to also fight off cancer. Not only did Atticus successfully beat the cancer, he did so while never giving up the sport he loves – tennis.
“Tennis was a big part of me getting better,” he said. “It was kind of a checkpoint for me in getting stronger.”
Spillman’s win over cancer has not gone unnoticed, and Saturday he received the Courage Award from the US Tennis Association Intermountain Wyoming in Casper.
Fighting The Disease
Within days of his diagnosis, Atticus began chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital Colorado. There was no warning for what would happen next.
On his second day of chemotherapy treatment, Spillman suddenly slumped over and stopped breathing. Terrified, his mother noticed a purple complexion in his face.
“They hit a button and all these people came rushing in,” Lisa Spillman said.
Atticus had just suffered an allergic reaction to a drug associated with his chemotherapy treatment.
After being administered a shot of adrenaline, Atticus quickly revived, but the event left an impression on his whole family, with Atticus’ 10-year-old sister expressing fear her brother wouldn’t come home.
“This kid has gone through so much, he could have almost died,” Lisa Spillman said.
Atticus went to Denver for three rounds of chemo with his first stay at Children’s Hospital lasting about a week. After that, he and his family stayed at the Ronald McDonald house and various hotels.
‘I Was In A Terrible Place In Mind’
When Atticus came home to Cheyenne, he faced some of his darkest days.
“Everything didn’t taste good,” he said. “I was in a terrible place in mind.”
There were days when excruciating stomach pain put him in a horrible mood. His schoolwork suffered, and the chemo made his brain foggy and left him chronically fatigued.
Despite losing his hair, much of his appetite and, at times, his pleasant demeanor, tennis was never far from his mind.
When Josh Cossitt, director of Frontier Park Tennis in Cheyenne and a tennis coach at Cheyenne South High School, found out about Atticus’ situation. He started spreading the word to his world of tennis contacts, reaching out to numerous high school and college coaches across the nation.
Thanks to his outreach, tennis players from 20-30 teams signed T-shirts, backpacks, water bottles and other memorabilia for Atticus, offering words of encouragement and sympathy for what he was going through. The items were already waiting for Atticus when he came home from the hospital.
“It felt really good, especially since I hadn’t played tennis much yet at that point,” he said, adding that, “Josh cared so much about me.”
Jason’s Friends Foundation of Casper also helped the Spillmans with travel and accommodation expenses in Denver and provided Thanksgiving and Christmas gifts to their entire six-member family. Make-A-Wish Wyoming put together a dream-like vacation to Disney World, Universal Studios and Volcano Bay in Florida.
“We had great support from all over the West,” Lisa Spillman said.
As the months carried on, Atticus’ condition began to improve. By January, his cancer was in remission, but at that point a new problem developed.
The chemotherapy had given him “foot drop,” a condition of peripheral neuropathy commonly experienced by children who receive chemo. This issue made it difficult for Atticus to correctly lift his left foot, causing him to fall over on occasion. He underwent physical therapy for six months to correct the issue.
After three to four months of being bald, Atticus’ hair started to grow back in curly flows (it was previously straight). As spring turned to summer, his physical condition began to improve, as did his energy level.
He started playing tennis again for the first time at the beginning of the summer. But after months without exercise, he found himself quickly out of breath and with much less endurance than he used to have.
At the end of the summer, Atticus joined the Cheyenne Central tennis team, practicing with the varsity squad and competing on JV. He said the season went even better than his junior year.
But for Atticus, simply being able to compete again was enough of a victory, and he said he felt more acquainted with the blessings of life itself after the harrowing experience.
Lisa Spillman said her son never tried to shy away from the chemo, knowing he was in a fight for his life.
“The courage of him is just unbelievable,” she said. “What a trooper.”
The Courage Award is given annually to a member of the Wyoming tennis community who continues to participate in the sport despite experiencing severe hardships and or life-threatening circumstances.
“It was nice. It was kind of weird being awarded for it,” Atticus said with a small chuckle.
Atticus still has the signed T-shirts hanging in his closet, reminders of the journey he has gone through. After nine months with the cancer in remission, doctors have told Atticus it is unlikely to return, but they are keeping an eye on it.
Atticus said he will keep playing tennis in the future with friends and family, but his competitive days are likely behind him. He is on schedule to graduate high school in the spring and is considering his college options, debating between the University of Wyoming, University of Montana and University of Colorado.
Also recognized Saturday are:
• Fritz Wasmuth of Cody (Marie Robertson Lifetime Achievement Award)
• Diane McGee of Jackson (Art Frakt Adult Volunteer of the Year Award)
• Teton County Parks and Recreation of Jackson (Organization of the Year Award)
• The Nandrup Family of Rock Springs (Family of the Year Award)
• Kacie Pugel and the Cheyenne Adaptive Tennis Program (Diversity and Inclusion Achievement Award)
• Brayden Flack and Sweetwater Now of Rock Springs (Media Excellence Award)
• Josh Cossitt (Tournament Director of the Year Award and Developmental Coach/Teaching Professional/High School Coach of the Year Award)
• Finley Klinger of Casper (Junior Player Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award)
• Kristin Huffman of Cheyenne (Junior Volunteer of the Year Award)
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