Against odds, Laney’s McLeod graduates while fighting cancer

UNC Childrens hospital worked around COVID diagnoses to hold ceremony

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — The last year has “sucked” for DJ McLeod. Friday, he said he was feeling “great.”

The Laney High School student has faced numerous obstacles while battling cancer during his senior year.

Despite the challenges, he is persevering. DJ was able to receive his diploma on Friday in a special ceremony at UNC Children’s Hospital, surrounded by family, friends, and the medical professionals who have helped him throughout his journey. He completed his accreditation by taking U.S. history, all while receiving chemotherapy and other treatments.

McCleod’s graduation was originally scheduled for Monday, but after he tested positive for COVID-19, the doctors at the hospital audibled and created a safe and spaced environment outside for DJ to receive his diploma Friday. He spent time in the ICU, but on Friday was feeling ‘great’.

“Today was everything,” said DJ’s mother, Ashanti Craine. “I’m so grateful. It was amazing. I did not plan any of it. I was just told to arrive with DJ.”

Graduation has been a goal for both DJ and Ashanti since the original diagnoses. But a recent scan revealed bad news: more tumors that are inoperable. That led Ashanti to bring it up to the staff at the hospital. The process began with communicating with Laney and the New Hanover County School Board so he could take two classes, even though he only needed U.S. History to graduate. “I asked what I needed to do and they said the only thing I had to do was pick up his cap, gown and diploma,” said Craine.

“Childhood cancer isn’t an individual disease. It’s a family disease. It’s a community disease. There are so many kids that are fighting every day that are warriors. But even with that, some of them don’t make the milestones we take for granted, graduation being one of them. There are way too many kids who are too sick to walk that are unable to attend their graduation, so they get their diploma in the mail… it’s a wonderful and beautiful thing but for me I know how I felt graduating high school. I know the fight DJ had for 12 years. So you work so hard and you’re working toward this goal – toward graduation… So I felt to not have it would have been a punishment, and DJ doesn’t deserve to be punished.”

DJ’s doctor, Patrick Thompson, praised the 18-year-old’s grace and resilience throughout his battle with cancer. “The very important ingredient in medicine is love,” Thompson said. “I’ll tell ya – there is no body that is easier to love than DJ. ” Thompson said. “He’s my guy. He’s an amazing young man. He has fought cancer in a lot of ways – he’s had surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, but the best way and most inspiring way that DJ has fought cancer, is that he’s said ‘The heck with you Cancer. You won’t stand in my way…’ I’m just so proud of him.”

“There are a lot of people on Team DJ. We have fabulous nurse practitioners, fabulous pharmacists… Team DJ is really crowded, but there’s plenty of room for you to get on the band wagon.”

McCleod was diagnosed with cancer last summer and has been receiving treatment ever since. With the bad news that came from the scans, they were disappointed. They were mentally and physically prepping for surgery to hopefully remove the tumor they had been fighting since July. With the tumor having grown, surgery was cancelled.

“When we first found out about the scans, we were disappointed,” Craine said. “I think it was the first time DJ cried.”

“How? How could this happen to me? This little tumor that we were so close so ready to get out of me expanded and grew more and more,” McCleod said. “I hate bad news so what I do is I change it and I make sure I do the best I could to make it good.”

When asked about his favorite part of the graduation ceremony, DJ simply replied, “Uh…. everything.”

Throughout his journey, DJ has inspired others with his positive attitude and unwavering spirit. “There is not a day that has gone by that he is not smiling or trying to encourage someone,” Craine said.

McCleod’s graduation ceremony was serenaded by the hospital staff, who presented him with a special diploma, along with messages from some notable figures, like UNC Football coach Mack Brown, star quarterback Drake Maye, the UNC Men’s Basketball team led by big man Armando Bacot, and others.

“He’s incredibly gracious, incredibly generous, and shows immense gratitude for just us doing our jobs,” Thompson said. “When we do something for DJ, it makes us feel better. If there was ever a patient I was meant to take care of it’s DJ.”

Dr. Thompson was in the room when the medical professionals at the hospital revealed the scans that showed progress toward healing had regressed. Now that DJ is 18, the doctors are required by law to discuss the options with DJ. His birthday is December 4th, meaning much of his fight occurred before this. Now DJ must know what his treatment plan is, but also decide what the plan of attack is.

When hearing about the scan, surgery being cancelled, and that doctors used the word “uncurable”; DJ turned to Ashanti and asked, “Am I going to die?”

“That hit me like a ton of bricks. You can never imagine being in this position. You can never imagine your child being in this position. To have to answer that question when we grow up and believe there’s this order of things: You grow up, you get married, you have kids, you become parents, grandparents, and then grandparents go, parents go – the cycle continues. For it to out of order and my child to be facing the end of his life… it feels as if the clock has gone into supersonic speed. There are not enough minutes in the day or hours, and you start contemplating everything about your life. I went from angry to denial to frustration all within 24 hours. But, then to listen to him, at 18, and say ‘It’s okay mom, we’re just going to keep living.’ He keeps saying ‘God has me, I’m going to be okay.”

DJ was presented with 2 choices: 1: Do more chemo and hope it reduces the size of the tumors, possibly down the line bringing surgery back in to play. Or 2: Do nothing and go experience life without coming into the hospital and get treatments. Doctors had referred DJ to palliative care and hospice care.

But DJ chose chemo, saying ‘I’m not giving up.’

“The peace that came over him … was amazing. For my 18-year-old to look at me and say ‘I don’t want to die, but whatever my life is going to be I’m going to live it to the fullest and if that means getting chemo, that’s fine, we’ll have to do chemo,'” said Craine.

“That conversation was like – Man, “Darnell don’t give up man,'” said DJ. “This – even though that it’s not curable there is some type of way we can do something about this. There’s some things you can do on your own and there’s some things that people will help you with.”

As brave as DJ is, he admits sometimes he questions why he fights so hard.

“Certain parts of the treatment like throwing up, being sick to your stomach, having that feeling that you want – that you need to eat, but you can’t… It’s those moments that strike you down – like ‘why do I keep going?’ But I’m getting prayers from all over the world… You may get the slightest little prayer, and that’s all you need to boost your motivation. My family and my friends keep me going. ”

Despite the difficult road ahead, McCleod remains optimistic. “I believe I’m going to be God’s miracle one way or the other but I’m going to live while I do it,” he said.

Craine also remains hopeful. “I know God is going to heal him. I know that DJ is going to be cancer free. I just don’t know if it’s going to be here on Earth or sitting next to God.”

Everyone involved knows it would take a miracle for DJ to be cancer free, but to Ashanti, DJ is already a miracle.

“As far as a miracle, truth be told, I had my miracle when he was born. I think I get a miracle every day. Whether God’s answer is I’m going to cure him on Earth or I’m going to cure him and he’s going to be next to me, the one thing I know is that DJ has left such an inspirational mark that will be felt all throughout North Carolina and across the United States that I hope and I pray that he ahs touched somebody. That he has touched a young athlete that has gotten a diagnosis that is sitting inside of a chemo clinic for the 3rd, 4th, 5th round… that he’s touched some young kid that just got the bad news or even a mother, father or family that has to make a decision and have conversations that you never dreamed that you’d have… that you remember in his darkest time in a year that was supposed to be everything for him, his senior year… For him to go through everything he’s gone through: radiation, chemo, surgeries, scans, bad news; and doing it all over again, but still maintain I’m going to smile, I’m going to love my family, I’m going to live… I hope that touches somebody to just say guess what, I can get up today and I can do it one more day and we can all be DJ strong.”

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