The sudden death last week of 18-year-old Ryse Williams shocked not only friends and family of the Redondo Union High School basketball player, but the entire South Bay community. How could someone be taken so young and so quickly and with so much promise?
Williams was a high school basketball standout named 2017 Bay League Most Valuable Player who planned to attend Loyola Marymount University in the fall, but his future was cut short by a rare and aggressive form of kidney cancer known as renal medullary carcinoma, taking his life just a day before graduation.
By the time doctors discovered the tumor, it had already reached stage 4 and spread to other organs, which is typical in cases of this incurable cancer that affects 1 in 20,000 to 30,000 people with sickle cell trait.
Because it affects so few people and research is so limited, there is currently no way to conduct early screening, said Dr. Manju Aron, a pathologist at Keck Medicine at the University of Southern California.
“We haven't had the opportunity to study this disease in detail,” Aron said. “There are some molecular alterations but we really don't have a good handle on how this disease develops and progresses. We just know the end result.”
The result, unfortunately, is never good. Aron said patients are typically given a diagnosis of up to two months to live. In May, a student at Sacramento State who was a star high school football player, died from the same cancer after battling the disease for more than a year. And that was beating the odds.
Some have no warning at all
What researchers do know about the cancer is that it affects mostly young people and bares a close relation to sickle cell trait, characterized by abnormal red blood cells. Sickle cell trait, which can lead to sickle cell disease but not necessarily, can be relatively innocuous if treated effectively throughout a person's life. It appears in 1 to 3 million people in America and occurs among 8 to 10 percent of African Americans, according to the American Society of Hematology.
For athletes with sickle cell trait who require exceptionally high levels of oxygen to reach their organs during times of exertion, the risks of developing kidney cancer increase, Aron said.
“As an athlete you need more oxygen to get to these smaller blood vessels because you are exerting,” Aron said. “Under these low oxygen conditions when the person requires more oxygen but isn't getting it, what happens is that patient’s hemoglobyn (the oxygen carrying part of red blood cells) kind of clumps down and becomes rigid and can't pass through these smaller vessels that supply the muscles and organs.”
In some cases, patients had no warning at all and just dropped dead, she said. There is no telling, however, exactly how long the cancer was in Williams’ system.
Victor Martin, who led the Sea Hawks varsity basketball team this year, said Williams was not showing any signs of illness during the season, which concluded in March. He did vomit during a playoff game and continued playing, but Martin said he thought it was probably just something he ate.
“I figure if he was at stage 4 and they just found out this month, he had to be at stage 4 during the season and that shows you how tough the guy is,” Martin said. “But did we know? Absolutely not.”
During the season Williams scored his career high three times, averaged 20 points and five rebounds per game, while leading the team both on and off the court, Martin said. As one of only a handful of returning varsity players last year, Williams was the only player on the team who competed on varsity for the entire four years of high school.
“He was the leader of our team, our mister clutch, our Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and he did all this probably with stage 4 cancer,” Martin said. “That is totally amazing and shocking.”
After battling flu-like symptoms for months, Williams checked into a hospital right before prom night about two weeks prior to his death, according to Martin. At first doctors thought he had a virus. More than a week later, they diagnosed the fatal cancer. That was on a Monday and by Thursday morning Williams passed away just a day before graduation.
Martin said the news came as a total shock. He and others learned Williams had stage 4 cancer earlier in the week but were not prepared for how suddenly it might take his life, he said.
“Nobody knew it was to that point,” Martin said. “When I went to see him on the 9th you could tell he was struggling to talk and I just said hang in there. He had his spirits up because he thought it was a virus. It was a shock to everybody.”
Martin had the unenviable position of breaking the news to the players on Thursday.
“That was really tough,” Martin said. “They were literally in shock. Some said they just texted him yesterday and he said he was going to be fine.”
At the commencement ceremony on Friday, an empty chair draped with Williams’ jersey and marked by a gold plaque paid tribute to a classmate who touched many lives with his smile, his personality and his play on the court. As his family was brought to the stage, students raised their fists in the air with red wristbands in a sign of unity and support. (See related story)
Funding for research
Over the weekend, Williams’ girlfriend Elena Hernandez set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for research toward the disease, which has already generated nearly $3,000.
"It is our hope and desire that individuals with the sickle cell trait will become aware of the potential risk of this cancer and begin to demand more extensive testing,” Hernandez wrote on the website. “No one should ever have to suffer and go through this. I want to do something to honor Ryse because he was just an outstanding person and his life was just taken too fast.”
Martin, who this week was putting together a photo and video collage of Williams' life, said it would be a loss that stuck with him for some time.
"It's heartbreaking to see his big smile in all the pictures," Martin said. "He would always be the first to start dancing or laughing and get everybody going. We will be mourning for a while."