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How 1 teen with stage 4 thyroid cancer beat the odds to graduate high school

When the Noble family was overwhelmed by their son's stage 4 cancer diagnosis, they decided to focus on the joy in life, not sadness.
/ Source: TODAY

Demetra and Robert Noble knew something was wrong with their teenage son, Tanner, when his weight dramatically dropped: The then-freshman went from 180 pounds to 135 pounds in just four months.

“He was an eating machine,” Tanner's father, Robert, 49, of Warren, Ohio, told TODAY.

“And it wasn’t staying in him,” mom, Demetra, 47, added.

Freshman year was the only time in high school Tanner Noble was healthy enough to play football. Even though he spent the rest of high school with cancer, Tanner still tried to make the most of school. #TannerTuff

But it wasn’t just the weight loss that concerned them. Tanner constantly had a stomachache and had no energy to do anything. They took him to the pediatrician who thought a gastroenterologist might help. Tanner underwent a colonoscopy, endoscopy and scans of his upper gastrointestinal tract. Everything looked fine. The doctor suspected that he might have food allergies and Tanner started a strict diet. Yet, the teen did not improve.

His parents kept pushing the doctors to uncover what was wrong.

“It was a very scary time,” Demetra said. “I just wanted answers and I was prepared for anything they would tell me.”

Finally, a doctor examined Tanner’s neck and found a lump and biopsied it. They finally discovered what was making Tanner so sick: He had stage 4 medullary thyroid cancer. This cancer is rare, accounting for about 1-2% of thyroid cancers, and is extremely aggressive.

“It wasn’t curable,” Demetra said.

The news devastated them.

“I felt like throwing up,” Robert said.

'Everything else in between is a gift.'

Doctors developed a treatment plan to slow the cancer, which included throat surgery to remove the carcinoma tumor and cancerous lymph nodes. But the tumor surrounded his vocal cords and nerves and doctors couldn’t remove all of the cancer without creating more damage.

“They can only take so much out,” Demetra explained.

While undergoing numerous surgeries, procedures and rounds of chemotherapy is tough to balance with high school, Tanner stayed strong thanks to his faith in God and the support of the community. #TannerTuff

Doctors also started him on oral chemotherapy. Tanner still couldn’t eat so doctors inserted a stomach tube to help. While the chemotherapy halted the spread of cancer, it also caused new problems

“He went through so many rounds of chemo and had horrendous side effects. He got gray hair, hand, foot and mouth disease and chemo-induced acne that caused black pigmentation problems on his face, chest and back. It looked like he had a black face and we had to get him 22 treatments of (laser) tattoo removal,” Demetra explained.

But the family decided not to focus on being sad. Instead, they looked for the joy in life.

“You feel so bad and the unknown drives you crazy ... I have to start living and stop worrying,” Demetra said. “You have to accept that your child is going to die and you have to accept that everything else in between is a gift.”

Tanner attended all his high school dances and went to class throughout treatments. The family enjoyed vacations and weekend excursions and Tanner appreciated how his family embraced life.

“I went to school because it made me feel normal and that was all I was asking for,” Tanner, 19, told TODAY. “It pretty much saved me.”

Mom Demetra Noble says she's a "hard core mom and a coach." Her strength encouraged Tanner Noble to attend as much of high school as possible while living with stage 4 thyroid cancer. #TannerTuff

While the family persevered through two years of treatment, they reached a point where it seemed like Tanner was out of options.

“The oncologist gave him about three to six months,” Robert said.

Offering hope

But Tanner’s doctor, Dr. Peter Anderson at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital, found an experimental drug trial and worked to get Tanner enrolled in it. After he started taking the pill in January 2018, his health improved greatly.

“His feeding tube came out. He gained 50 pounds and he became someone different again. He got his life back,” Demetra said.

And the family witnessed something they never imagined they’d see: Tyler's high school graduation.

“I didn’t think we’d ever get to see him walk across the stage,” Demetra said. “It was emotional, gratifying.”

At one point, it seemed like doctors were out of treatment options for Tanner Noble. But a new therapy helped the teen do what everyone thought was impossible--graduate from high school. #TannerTuff

Tanner will be attending Kent State University in Kent, Ohio to study psychology and counseling with a minor in writing.

“I am very excited to be able to start college. I didn’t really think I was going to make it out of high school,” Tanner said.

Tanner’s illness changed what the Nobles think is important.

“Life is precious,” Demetra said. “You cherish your children a lot more. You cherish people a lot more.”

They credit their strong faith in God and community support with helping them be strong when it often felt hopeless.

While watching their son live with stage 4 cancer has been overwhelming for Robert and Demetra Noble, they decided to focus on the joy and life and cherish every moment they have with him. #TannerTuff

“I should have died but I didn’t die. I think because my community prayed,” Tanner said. “People are able to hear this and be touched by it.”