Zach Lederer jokes he was a little “drugged up” when, in his hospital bed, he lifted his arms in a strongman pose, stared resolutely ahead and allowed himself to be photographed.
After battling childhood cancer, Lederer, an 18-year-old from Ellicott City, wanted anyone who would listen to know he could do it again. On Jan. 25, surgeons at Johns Hopkins had removed a cancerous tumor from his brain, but some of it remained.
Another fight was ahead.
He said he thought, “If I make these muscles and show everyone how strong I am right now, they’ll stop worrying about me and think, ‘Oh he’ll be great.’”
His father posted the picture on Facebook.
Hours later, his cousins Jon Feldman and Joey O’Dwyer lifted their arms in the same pose in a show of strength and solidarity, and posted as well.
“The ‘Tebow’ is no longer ‘in,’" read the caption, referring to the drop-on-one-knee-and-pray pose started by Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. "Now it’s the Zach Lederer,” read the caption. “Stay strong, big man. We love you!”
And just like that, a viral web sensation was born in support of Lederer, who will soon start undergoing radiation and chemotherapy to treat the cancer he and his family thought he had bested at age 11, the year he had his first brain surgery.
Hundreds, if not more, friends and supporters of Lederer have posed in pictures of themselves on Facebook and Tumblr “Zaching,” the word people use to describe the strongman pose inspired by Zach.
Those include: his sister Julia Lederer, a 16-year-old junior at ; Craig Robinson, the actor who plays “Darryl” from The Office television show; Del. Liz Bobo, Lederer's grandmother; the 7th Marine Regiment based in California; countless young women—in sororities, dance marathons and in South Miami; police officers from the ; babies, dogs, sport teams; families posing in their kitchens--and the chefs from Sushi Sono in downtown Columbia.
“Zaching” has come in other forms as well.
University of Maryland men's basketball coaches recently all wore white dress shoes during the game against Miami in a show of support of Lederer, who is the student manager for the team.
On Friday, Gov. Martin O’Malley called Lederer to check on him.
“He told me he’s with me and he’s praying for me,” Lederer said. “That means the world to me.”
Lederer said that with each post in which someone is “Zaching,” he or she is also supporting “every cancer patient you come into contact with.”
‘You really are exceptional’
Family members and supporters of Lederer said his strongman pose has a deep meaning to those who know him, and that’s part of the reason people have been so quick to participate in “Zaching.”
“You really are exceptional,” his mother, Christine Lederer, told him Sunday during an interview with Zach, his mother and father by Patch. “I don’t know too many people who would handle this like you.”
As a sixth grader at , Zach and his mother went to the pediatrician’s office to investigate headaches so terrible they made him vomit.
He was told to go immediately to the emergency room at Johns Hopkins University, where a brain specialist delivered the bad news.
He had a tumor. And, it was fatal.
“They said, ‘Take him home, make him comfortable,'” said Zach’s father, John Lederer. “They said he may not make it through the night. They couldn’t believe he walked in there. Honestly, it couldn’t be worse news. It was as bad as it gets.”
The hospital neurosurgical team consulted with internationally known Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was on call the night Lederer was brought to the emergency room. Carson heard the grim diagnosis from his colleagues and decided to take Lederer's case, family members said.
What followed was a three-and-a-half month ordeal that included brain surgery and a week in a medically induced coma during which swelling in Zach's brain forced doctors to remove parts of his skull to make room.
Doctors were unable to remove the tumor after surgery, which was encased in blood vessels, and instead prescribed six months of radiation, family members said.
While in recovery, Lederer relearned how to eat, talk and walk. Over time, his tumor began to shrink.
Soon enough, he went back to sixth grade and started his life again.
By the time he was a senior at , what was once a walnut-sized mass was about a centimeter in diameter, his family told The Washington Post in 2010.
For Zach, that only meant one thing.
He wanted to play football.
Even though he had a ventricular shunt in his head, as well as a titanium plate to replace the skull that was removed during his childhood surgery, he was determined, the Post reported.
The coach at the time, Ken Senisi, spoke to Lederer's parents, who then spoke to Carson.
They all agreed that Lederer could play.
“I thought it was the greatest thing in the world,” Lederer said. “What better way to show everyone I’ve beaten this disease that takes away so many.”
Lederer, then 150 pounds, played cornerback.
‘Another opportunity for me to prove myself worthy of this life’
In 2011, he enrolled at the University of Maryland in College Park with a major in broadcast journalism. He also became the student manager of the university’s men’s basketball team.
Then one day in early January, he noticed numbness in his left leg. An MRI showed another lesion in his brain. It was time to face another brain surgery.
His grandmother, Bobo, D-Howard County, recently highlighting Zach’s words on Facebook.
“Found out that I’m getting surgery tomorrow," Bobo quoted Zach as saying. "Don’t want anybody to be worried, I’ll be fine. Another opportunity for me to prove myself worthy of this life. Blessed.”
Zach’s bout with childhood cancer galvanized the community when it first occurred, his former coach, Senisi, now the head Lacrosse coach at Howard Community College, said Sunday.
At the time, supporters made meals for the family and sent Lederer hundreds of handwritten notes. Many were letters scrawled by children in crayon and marker that Lederer still keeps in a box under his bed at his Ellicott City home.
When friends and supporters heard last month the cancer had come back, they wanted to help again, and much of that motivation came from knowing and loving the guy that Lederer is, Senisi said.
That’s how “Zaching” really took off, he said.
“People really kind of gravitate to him,” he added. “If you spend time with him, he just blows your mind. There’s no agenda with him. … He just wants to live his life.”
Those dedicated to helping survivors of cancer and other illnesses say Zach’s positive attitude, and the spread of “Zaching” across the web, has inspired others facing challenges.
“He’s flexing in the camera to show he’ll be alright,” said Jordan Lawhead of Nashville, TN, who runs the website and organization Youinspire.org, which posts inspiring messages for those facing tough diagnoses, including cancer.
“Then it went out across the world,” Lawhead said. “Yeah, we’re going to flex against fear and cancer and all the hopelessness it represents…. [Zach] is a shining example of an ‘overcomer.’ He really wants to go for it. He’s really living, and we’re so proud of him.”