UNC student Wesley Barnes creates a new normal after cancer diagnosis

By Kaitlyn Schmidt

 

UNC-Chapel Hill student Wesley Barnes exhaled October air and dropped his purple and black scooter to the ground. As he settled on the concrete lip of the skate park, an abnormal bead of sweat trickled down his face.

 

Wesley always protected his head — a helmet for falls, and a durag for stares.

 

But on this sweaty occasion, Wesley unclipped his helmet and peeled off his blue and white durag, revealing his hairless scalp.

 

A 12-year-old skater passed by and snickered.

 

“I like yo cut, G!”

 

“I have cancer,” Wesley said. As the young skater sputtered to deliver an apology, Wesley only laughed; humor was how he coped.

 

For the longest time though, Wesley didn’t want to admit he had cancer. The tumor stole his independence, his optimism and his identity. Learning to accept his diagnosis was the first step to recovering from not just the physical battle, but the mental one.

 

 

This was Wesley, before.

 

Everyone knew the name at Hickory Ridge High School. He took on many titles: student body president, captain of varsity soccer, prom king, DECA president, theater geek. He was also known for rolling a piano into the cafeteria and singing a slightly pitchy promposal to his girlfriend, Emma Wakeman.

 

Wesley was obsessed with TED Talks, which inspired him while writing his graduation speech.

 

“While the achievements you accomplish during high school put you in the position that you’re in walking across the stage,” Wesley said. “What you do afterwards is entirely up to you.”

 

He got into his dream school, where he thrived in his first year. Wesley participated in community government, placed in the UNC Makeathon and spent his leisure time scootering around Chapel Hill Skate Park.

 

In March 2020, COVID-19 sent him back to Concord, North Carolina with his parents.  He passed the time with Emma and his best friend Logan, who had recently picked up skateboarding. He and Logan frequented Soul Ride Skatepark, Logan always bringing his brown skateboard and Wesley bringing his scooter and two large water cups that he grabbed at Taco Bell. To Logan’s amazement, Wesley would gulp down over 60 ounces and proceed to scooter in the heat without sweating a drop. Unsure of how to react, Logan simply clowned Wesley.

 

“What the f*** is wrong with you, Wesley?” Logan said. “Thirsty a** motherf*****.”

 

 

When Wesley moved back to Chapel Hill in January 2021, he took Logan to the skate park. But after only 20 minutes of scootering, Wesley complained that his hands and feet hurt in the cold. When Logan touched Wesley’s purple hand, it felt like a block of ice.

 

These quirks of Wesley’s persisted,  he excessively drank and urinated and shivered in 70 degree weather with layers on. In late May, Wesley exhibited abnormal blood work results and got referred to specialists at UNC. When Wesley called his mom, Kim Barnes, for help, she saw it as a flare in the sky.

 

“That’s it,” Kim said. “You will not go to another doctor’s appointment without us.”

 

That summer, his parents chauffeured Wesley to his appointments at the UNC Department of Pediatrics. Goodbye adulthood.

 

MRIs. CT scans. More MRIs.

 

“Pituitary adenoma,” doctors said. “99% are benign,” they told him.

 

Doctors reassured Wesley and his parents that the tumor was removable and then his system would just reset itself. And that would be it.

 

Sleep-deprived in the odd hours of the morning in the ICU after his operation, Wesley questioned the doctor in the room.

 

“Do you know what this is?”

 

“We don’t know,” they said. “It could be lymphoma.”

 

 

Wesley was laying in his bed two weeks later when he got the call. He rushed down to the dining room and put the phone on speaker with his parents.

 

The doctor laid it on Wesley: his tumor was malignant.

 

He had cancer.

 

The diagnosis didn’t feel real.

 

Emma and Wesley’s mom urged him to see a therapist to guide him through the looming trauma, but Wesley refused.

 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Wesley said. “I just want to get through this and never think about it again.”

 

Logan got Wesley’s call in late July. Just five months earlier, Logan had lost his own mother to appendix cancer; he was all too familiar with how it could wittle Wesley down.

 

“I was terrified for him because he’s so young and it really puts a stop on all of your plans,” Logan said. “And I knew he had big plans.”

 

 

Wesley moved back home and went through four rounds of chemotherapy. During each cycle, Wesley spent three days in the oncology unit for infusions. With his hood up, Wesley refused to look at the fluid-filled bags slowly draining into his veins, drowning out reality with The Weeknd’s album, “Trilogy,” blaring through his AirPods.

 

For the three days following his infusions, Wesley was a shell of a human being. He ran a constant temperature, and despite his regimen of anti-nausea meds every three hours, he lost 15 pounds after regurgitating his insides.

 

Holed up in his room, Wesley passed the time by watching “Twilight” and “Squid Game” and texting his small circle of people. But a cloudy disposition soon came over his interactions with his friends, parents and doctors.

 

“It felt like having a bratty 10-year-old,” Kim said.

 

Wesley spent about a week in agonizing pain from treatment, then had two weeks off to recover before his next cycle — but even the taste of feeling normal felt cruel.

 

“What’s the point of going through the ups if I’m just gonna get down again and feel even worse?” Wesley said.

 

 

During his second cycle of treatment, Wesley started noticing tufts of his hair on his pillow and shower floor. After ordering an assortment of durags and hats online, Wesley let his father take clippers to his head for the first time since sixth grade. That was a mistake.

 

“Even if I’m losing my hair, I will never let my dad touch me with clippers ever again,” Wesley said. “My hairline was all jacked up, nothing was even. Bro could have at least tried to fade me on the side.”

 

It was then, when Wesley faced his reflection in the mirror for the first time, that he decided to take on his newest title: cancer patient.

 

Like he told the crowd at his high school graduation, what Wesley did with his life was entirely up to him. He controlled his own destiny.

 

Soon, Wesley agreed to see a licensed clinical psychologist, who taught him to set attainable goals every day.

 

These goals began with chatting with other cancer patients on online forums. Even though Wesley thought it was cliché, talking to someone in the same situation made him want to fight harder.

 

Wesley soon ventured down to his basement, where he and his parents played nightly pool tournaments. Wesley’s competitive fire was ignited once again as his win tally on their white board began surpassing his mother’s.

 

Scootering also kept Wesley sane. It helped him socialize and set goals, like doing a Benihana or Bri Flip.

 

“When you’re skating, it’s very freeing,” Logan said. “When you’re out doing an activity like that, it distracts you.”

 

 

Though he lived only 20 minutes away from Emma during chemo, when Wesley answered the door to her bearing orange and yellow tulips in mid-October, their cathartic embrace was like celebrating a long-distance reunion.

 

As he began achieving these daily goals, Wesley became more comfortable talking about his tumor, even enjoying the reaction he got when he dropped the cancer bomb on people.

 

 

This is Wesley, now.

 

He finished chemo on Oct. 22, 2021, and radiation on Dec. 16. Though Wesley’s pituitary tumor was isolated and has a low return rate, he is still immunocompromised and will be monitored closely for the next 10 years.

 

He’s back on track with his college plans, working towards his psychology degree and interning for Optum Health Services. He stopped wearing head coverings in late January after a thin layer of hair finally blanketed his head again. He plans on getting a tattoo over his Chemoport scar once the tissue heals.

 

On Feb. 20, Wesley participated in the TEDxUNC student speaker competition. If he’s one of the two speakers picked, he will share his story of acceptance on his biggest stage yet.

 

Wesley’s still the funny dude that scooters and will beat his mother in pool. But the scars that he carries from his pituitary tumor, both physical and mental ones, are now a part of him too.

 

And he carries them like badges of honor, open to discussing how they’ve helped him curate a little more practical optimism in his life.

 Edited by Layna Hong and Emily Thoreson