Cancer to 'Clouds': With guitar in hand, Zach Sobiech faces the unimaginable
Zach Sobiech doesn’t have to go to school.
But he wakes up early every morning and sits in class anyway.
Diagnosed at 14 with Osteosarcoma — a rare and fatal pediatric cancer that starts in the bones and spreads to the rest of the body — Zach has been told by doctors he might not live past this summer.
While most teens groan at the thought of endless classes and piles of homework, Stillwater High School brings Zach peace of mind. It’s where he can hide from the daily tormentor that has robbed him of carefree teenage moments.
It’s where life becomes normal again.
“He had to kind of decide how to handle it. When you have a date that … you might not be here beyond this time, you have to decide how you want to spend that time,” said Laura Sobiech, Zach’s mom, at their Lakeland home.
“And Zach had to go through that. Especially at the beginning of this (school) year. It’s his senior year. That’s the year, as (teens) know, when you plan your future. Where are you gonna go? And Zach doesn’t have that. He had to step back and say, ‘OK, what am I gonna make this into? How am I gonna spend this time?’”
Bothered by hip pain after a run, Zach visited his doctor. With no visible break, he was sent to physical therapy for treatment. But after two months of the pain worsening, Laura knew something was really wrong when Zach couldn’t even tie his shoes.
The Sobiech family was not prepared for what MRI results would show.
“We did the MRI to see if there was soft tissue damage, so even at that point, we’re not even thinking about a tumor. At all,” Laura said. “So it was like, ‘Wait, it’s cancer?’
“Cancer is rare in children. We were not even thinking that. I remember looking across the room at Zach and thinking, ‘How do I tell him it’s a tumor?”
Had Zach gone to a specialist right away, Laura is confident that they would have seen the tumor in X-rays before it spread to his lungs. However, since only about 400 kids are diagnosed with Osteosarcoma in the United States, “most doctors will never see this cancer,” Laura said. “A lot of kids end up breaking the bone before they even realize what has happened. And it’s still misdiagnosed.”
IN THE ‘CLOUDS’
Now, despite three-plus years of CAT scans, chemotherapy and countless medications, the cancer has finally caught up to Zach. While there aren’t any available treatments to put his cancer into remission, he still sees a doctor twice a week to test new ones. It isn’t meant to kill the cancer, Zach said, but to see how much his body can tolerate without making him feel “really, really sick.”
Through all the trials, Zach, now 17, began writing songs as a way to deal with his emotions.
What started off as a request from his guitar teacher has since turned into a signature moment — the two million hit YouTube sensation “Clouds,” a song originally written for his girlfriend, Amy Adamle.
Zach uses the song to deal with the reality of his fate — how life is being “ripped right out (of his) hands,” leaving him little time to spend with loved ones and wishing that “if only (he) had a little bit more time.” He sings of flying into the clouds, leaving his loved ones behind, and how perhaps, “someday I’ll see you again.”
“I think I was kind of surprised. I had no idea that he was doing that,” Adamle said. “I really liked it, but I also didn’t want to be like, ‘Who did you write this for?’ I didn’t want to be annoying, but I could tell he was writing it for, well, me. I don’t like saying that because it seems kind of obnoxious. But I was really touched by it. I loved it, obviously.”
For Zach, writing “Clouds” was like penning a personal journal entry. It just happened that the rest of the world could see the pages when he was asked to play his song during an interview with local radio station KS95.
Since then, “Clouds” has blown up and reached audiences all over the world — “six continents,” Zach proudly boasts. Not that he isn’t getting enough attention in Minnesota.
Fellow teens have approached him in public to offer words of encouragement and adult strangers have picked up his tab at restaurants. In January, Zach was a featured guest at 89.3 The Current’s star-studded birthday bash and he sold out his own concert fundraiser at the Varsity Theater a month later.
“It’s very strange, but it’s also great,” he said. “Especially around here. People will always stop to say, ‘Hi, Zach.’ They’re all supportive.’
“My theory is that everyone has some amount of pain in their life. It’s just a matter of how visible it is. But everyone has some kind of struggle. Everyone has something. And I think everyone can relate to that. A paper cut to someone else could be surgery for me. So I dunno, ‘Clouds’ is just based on that.”
NOT GIVING UP
For Zach, life with a terminal cancer diagnosis has meant no “wasted moments.”
Knowing that they’re up against time, he said his family — which also includes dad, Rob, and three siblings — focuses on a “month out so that we know we’re able to do it. Three months is a little shaky right now. But we still make plans. Just not big ones.”
Small plans include “open Sundays” at the Sobiech house, or a “pot of soup kinda thing,” where family and friends can stop by unannounced, Laura said.
These days, there’s always something to catch up on.
Zach’s album, “Fix Me Up,” was released in February and is being promoted nationally by music rights giant BMI. The family even received a trip to New York as part of the signing.
Zach has also been accepted to the University of Minnesota for fall, another move toward “feeling normal,” at least as Zach understands it.
“We’re always hoping for a miracle. You know, for something to happen so he would be able to go to college,” Laura said. “But it just doesn’t look like that’s going to happen right now.”
That doesn’t mean Zach is giving up just yet. While fighting the unimaginable, Zach has learned that he’s a lot stronger than he thought and isn’t a “huge wimp.”
“I’m going to go as hard as I can,” he said. “I want to be remembered as someone who went down fighting. Someone who kept trying until he just couldn’t anymore.”
‘FINDING PEACE THROUGH MUSIC’
To learn more about the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund, visit www.childrenscancer.org/zach. Donors who give $20 or more will receive a copy of Zach’s album, which features studio and acoustic versions of the YouTube hit “Clouds.”