TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Noah Nieto sits bundled up under a gray plush blanket on the recliner in his living room. He’s wearing a knit beanie covering his shaved head. He spends a lot of time cozied up in his living room these days, but it wasn’t always this way.
In fact, it was far from it.
Just months ago, Nieto was a star basketball player and track athlete at Empire High School. All that changed after a serious medical diagnosis turned his world upside down.
It all started with lower back pain earlier this year. At first, he wrote it off as a sports injury — a small fracture in his back from earlier in the year.
Nieto started to lose feeling in his leg and foot, that’s when he realized the injury was much more serious than he originally thought. When it escalated to sheer pain, his mother, DeAun Nieto, took him to the hospital.
It turned out to be much worse than a sports injury.
Aug. 31, Noah was diagnosed with cancer and by mid-September they were told it was chondrosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. The cause of his severe back pain turned out to be a large tumor near his low back and hip.
The tumor, which is about one foot by one foot, is pressing down on vital nerve endings, veins and arteries in his left leg.
Since his diagnosis, Noah has lost almost all function of his leg. If chemotherapy doesn’t work, doctors might need to amputate.
“The reaction was rough and for my family it was kind of rough,” Noah said. “It was extra crazy because at the time they told me I would have to have my leg amputated, that was a little shocking.”
Now, Noah is working to accept whatever happens while fostering hope. That’s proved to be a tricky balance for the 18-year-old.
The news hit DeAun even harder as she grappled to let go of the vision she had for the year ahead.
“I was completely devastated; it was his senior year, we were looking forward to events, I had this picture of what this year would look like and it changed in a heartbeat,” she said.
The Nieto family adapted as best as anyone can after a life-altering diagnosis. Noah’s new reality became chemotherapy, doctor visits and navigating life in a wheelchair.
But one thing hasn’t changed — Noah’s positive perspective on life.
“My first reaction was ‘this isn’t fair,’ but then he said, ‘but mom, it isn’t fair for anybody,” DeAun said.
The whole process has been far from easy for DeAun, but she said she takes solace in one thing in particular— her son's understanding.
“Those others moms are dealing with kids that don’t have a clue — they don’t understand why they are getting poked in these strange places ,” said DeAun.
Noah’s happiness rubs off on the whole family and even the community, DeAun said.
Noah’s GoFundMe page, which helps his family with medical bills, has donations from strangers across the state, many of whom heard his story through local news. The family has received anonymous donations reaching $1,000.
If there’s one thing that helps the family cope, it’s the love they feel from the community.
“It’s amazing that people who don’t even know me will support me,” said Noah.
The community support manifested itself beyond Noah’s GoFundMe page.
The principal from Cienega High School gathered students to help out with a project and orchestrated the construction class to build a ramp at the entrance of the Nieto home.
Students led by an instructor replaced the four steep steps leading up to the door and built a ramp that drastically improved the family’s routine of getting Noah in and out of the house.
Between the ramp, donations and fundraisers, DeAun and Noah said they couldn’t ask for a better community. It’s that support that helps them fight off bitterness and resentment.
Now the tight-knit family cherishes the little moments.
For Noah, he’s gained a new appreciation for swallowing food after an illness made it almost impossible for Noah to eat.
“I’ve learned to appreciate what you have and what you’re given because it can be taken from you in a split second,” Noah said.
The family embraces the hard truth that tomorrow is never promised and revels in the support that surrounds them.
"Hold on to the people that support you and care about you and try to be as positive as possible,” said Noah.