Life lessons: Cancer diagnosis helps Coach Timmy Allen, the wrestling coach at West Forsyth, reflect on what’s ahead

Published 12:06 am Thursday, February 15, 2024

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By Jay Spivey

For the Clemmons Courier 

Imagine being Timmy Allen. You’re 35 years old and you finally get the opportunity of a lifetime. And just as you start in that role it all flashes before your eyes.  

Allen, who was named the boys wrestling coach at West Forsyth last spring, replacing Jason Hooker, was diagnosed with kidney cancer on the first day of teacher workdays last August before students had even reported to campus.  

In fact, according to Allen, the cancer is called Stage 1 clear-cell renal carcinoma. At his age, it’s extremely rare. Oddly enough, he didn’t really present any symptoms before being diagnosed. He went to Davie Gastroenterology to get checked. 

“I had heartburn,” he said. “So, I went in. I was having heartburn. I had been diagnosed with reflux disease a long time ago. I was like, ‘Oh, let’s go get checked out.’ Did an endoscopy, everything was perfect. And they went, ‘Everything looks perfect on your endoscopy. Well, let’s just get an ultrasound and just check your gall bladder to make sure you ain’t got gall stones.” 

Allen said he went back the Wednesday before school started last August and had the ultrasound.  

“They called me at 10 o’clock in the morning and that very first workday, gave me my results and said they saw something on my right kidney,” Allen said. “And I was like, ‘So, like a kidney stone?’ And they’re like, ‘No. It’s like a mass.’ As soon as you hear mass, you’re going ‘What?’” 

All of the tests persisted for the next week. 

“It was rough,” Allen said.  

The CT showed the mass on his kidney was 2.7 centimeters, which is about 5-10% of the upper-right portion of the kidney.  

“It was in a great location for the partial nephrectomy,” Allen said. “Instead of losing my whole kidney, like if had been my interior or kinda like on the exterior, upper-right pole.” 

Timmy Hairston, who is the girls wrestling coach at West Forsyth, and has coached there for the past seven seasons, found out about Allen’s diagnosis very early. 

“Shocked. Young guy. Healthy,” Hairston, who is 48, said of Allen. “He had been having some pain, so he finally went to the doctor and got checked out. Just let him know that we were going to be there and praying for him, and whatever he needed just ask.” 

Principal Kevin Spainhour and Athletic Director Mike Pennington were also apprised early-on as to what was going on. 

“We felt for him because he’s so gung-ho and is full of energy and he was raring and ready to go,” Pennington said. “And all of a sudden this kind of derails him. Thankfully, it was just for a short term, but obviously, we were very concerned about his health. But also, we felt for him because both of us (Spainhour and Pennington) coached and know how important it is to get off to a good foot starting your program. And he kind of got behind the 8-ball. 

“But I give him credit. He works like a dog. He’s a hard worker.” 

Allen is part of the mutual admiration society for Pennington and Spainhour. 

“Mike Pennington, how he dealt with me, him and Spainhour together, man, I’m about to get emotional now talking about it,” Allen said. “They supported me through the whole thing. And I can’t thank them anymore.” 

Ironically, his urologist is Dr. John Schwabe of Novant Health Urology, who wrestled years ago for Hooker. Schwabe performed the nephrectomy on Sept. 29, 2023. 

“There is no chemo for kidney cancer,” Allen said. “That was pretty much the only option. It was either partial, robotic-assisted, laparoscopic is what they call it, nephrectomy, partial nephrectomy or full nephrectomy.  

“I had the option and I wanted to do the partial. And (Schwabe) agreed that that was probably the best course of action.” 

Following the surgery, Allen was in the hospital for two days.  

“I was actually walking around after about a day,” he said. “And after that I was just kind of bed-ridden a little bit, well no, I shouldn’t say bed-ridden because I could get up and walk, but I was stuck in my recliner letting stomach heal up.” 

The doctor cut the tumor and negative margins, meaning they cut a little more than the tumor to make sure they got everything. 

“Other than being out of wrestling for two to three months, as far as lifting over 10 pounds,” Allen said. “They pretty said get my scans every six months for five years. And after that they might cut it back to annually. They feel pretty good about me being cured of cancer.” 

Despite being away from wrestling for about a month to six weeks, the coaches made Allen, who is also a PE teacher at West Forsyth, feel comfortable knowing the team was in good hands. 

“Just kept running it smoothly,” Hairston said. “For the first month that he was back I still kind of ran everything because he, you know, was still tired. Couldn’t lift, hadn’t gotten approved from the doctor to do a lot of physical activity. So, kept trying to remind him, ‘Hey, you can’t be doing that.’ I felt like the old dad on the coaching staff.” 

Part of not lifting anything was not being able to play with his young children – Everett, 5, and Abram, 8.  

“They were so good,” Allen said of his children. “They helped me walk around the house and everything. They would hold my hand and walk me through the house and stuff.” 

Another important person for Allen through the diagnosis, surgery and recovery has been his wife, Hannah. 

“I have the best wife in the world,” he said. “I know everybody says that, but my wife Hannah, she was my rock.  

“When I told her I was thinking about resigning, she said, ‘Absolutely not. You have worked too hard to get where you’re at to get one little circumstance that you’re going to beat make you change your mind on everything.’” 

His thought process was about the wrestling team. 

“The whole time, we stayed in communication with him,” Pennington said. “Even when he was recuperating at home, we would text him and checking on him – No. 1, letting him know that we cared because we do. And also, anything you let us do, let us know we’ll do, you know, personal, school-wise, wrestling, the whole 9 yards.” 

Despite support from his family, West Forsyth administration, coaching staff, and the team, Allen fell into depression. 

“I got pretty depressed, I’m not going to lie,” he said.  

Allen reached out to many people for help. 

“Lots and lots and lots of prayer. Leaning on the Lord,” he said. “Some medication. I had a conversation with my doctor about just getting something.” 

His primary-care doctor, Gigi Smith, prescribed him Lexipro and BuSpar for depression and anxiety. He’s also spoken to his pastor for help. 

“Even after the surgery, it’s a mental battle,” Allen said. “I’m still in the battle every single day.” 

As the season progressed Allen slowly worked his way back. 

“The kids really stepped up,” Hairston said. “The kids, they didn’t know him very well, but it was just a testimony to the group we have. A lot of them reached out. Their families took meals to his house, you know, checked with him daily, checking on him, seeing how he was doing.  

“I would say it did bring the team together because that was one of many obstacles and them understanding, ‘Hey, life can throw a lot of curveballs. It’s not always smooth. But understand that you have to fight through things. And you need people in your corner and that’s the importance of relationships. So, it turned into a good teaching moment.” 

There were 12 boys wrestlers from West Forsyth who competed in last weekend’s NCHSAA Class 4-A Midwest Regional at Ragsdale High School. However, none of the wrestlers qualified for this weekend’s NCHSAA Class 4-A state championship in Greensboro. However, Jady Magallanes and Millie Garcia Olmedo qualified for the girls. 

“What our wrestling program needs right now is leadership, and you can give that,” Pennington said of his conversation with Allen. “I said, you’re not 100 percent yet, but you can give that. The other stuff of the hands-on stuff, you know, that’ll come in time.  

“He was patient. I’m sure nobody knows how difficult it was. And I can’t imagine.” 

Now that the season is almost complete, Allen can only look to the future. 

“It’s one of the biggest, it’s obviously the biggest eye-opening experience of my life,” he said. “It’s changed my life drastically. I try to make sure that everything I do, not that I didn’t before, (I) just try to make sure that I’m acknowledging everyone – people that have been there for me. Just making sure everybody knows that I care about them.”