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'Coming home': How her brother's battle with cancer brought tennis standout Abbey Forbes to UNC

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UNC graduate student Abbey Forbes serves the ball during the women's tennis match against the University of Miami on Saturday, April 1, 2023, at the Cone-Kenfield Tennis Center.

For Raleigh native Abbey Forbes, the decision to transfer from UCLA to UNC was not just about her tennis career — it was about coming home.

Abbey, a top-20 Division I singles player, has made her mark on the No. 1 North Carolina women’s tennis team. In the over a dozen singles matches at UNC, Abbey has only lost three, and she is still undefeated in doubles. The graduate student also earned the winning point to clinch the program’s seventh ITA National Indoor Championship title on Feb. 13.

Despite these feats, Abbey didn’t decide to move across the country to add more accomplishments to her resumé. The driving force pulling her home was her younger brother Luke and his battle with cancer. 

While he finished up chemotherapy in August of last year, Abbey wanted to be at his side during the final stages of his treatment. She also wanted to see the doctors and nurses at UNC Children’s Hospital that saved her brother’s life. 

Playing at the highest level in her home state lets her do just that and more. 

“Country strong”

Abbey was 3 years old when her brother was born, and a special bond was born on that day, too. He made her a big sister, and because of that, Abbey said, he became the most important person in her life. 

Before he turned 2, Luke was diagnosed with autism. Abbey knew Luke’s life would look different than hers, but she became a “mother hen,” according to her mother, Denise Lawson-Forbes. 

“When I started playing tennis, he would come on every trip,” Abbey said. “We spent so much time in close proximity together. When I learned how to drive, I took him everywhere.”

As they got older, Abbey watched her brother go through life and school with the biggest smile on his face, in spite of his disability. From the moment Luke was born, Denise always called her son “country strong” because he embodied the toughness and energy of a kid who grew up on a farm.

Every challenge life threw at him, Luke persevered. “Country strong” is a motto that symbolizes his strength, and it later became a rallying cry for the family as they faced an even tougher battle years later. 

When Abbey was a senior in high school, her family began to notice that Luke was not running around with his usual level of energy. He wasn’t participating in school activities like he usually did, and he wasn’t socializing with his friends.

In May, at one of his Miracle League baseball games, Denise said she noticed a spot that looked like ringworm on her son’s body while he was running the bases – a type of fungal skin infection that Luke had dealt with before. But, when he came closer, she realized it was not a ringworm, but a lump with a shadow around it.

Denise took him to the doctor, who initially believed the lump was caused by allergies. Two days later, she took him back, and the doctors discovered more lumps and ordered a blood test. The family was instructed to go to the hospital immediately.

Abbey was heading home from physical therapy when she got the news. Her 15-year-old brother was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a kind of blood cancer.

Driving down Six Forks Road, a drive she will never forget, Abbey sobbed.  

“My worst nightmare had come true,” she said. 

Abbey hurried to her other brother Matthew’s school to pull him out of class and talk to him. 

Doctors told the Forbes family that there would be an 80-percent chance of the cancer treatments working, but the other 20 percent scared them.

“It was a blur,” Denise said. “I'm like, ‘He has autism, and then now you're telling me he has cancer too?’ I think that knocked us off of our feet. That was the last thing we expected.”

During this life-altering moment, Abbey was at the height of her junior tennis career. In two weeks, she would have to leave for Europe to play in the French Open and later Wimbledon, where she went on win the junior doubles title.

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She was also preparing for her upcoming transition to college tennis at UCLA, a top-10 program.

After competing individually for so long, playing for a college tennis team was Abbey’s dream. Moving to California was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Tennis was keeping her head up in spite of the news of her brother’s diagnosis. 

Denise did not let her daughter cancel the trip, nor did she let Abbey put her college dreams on pause. Life had to move along, even if it felt like her world had changed. Abbey turned to her Catholic faith, which she said also guided her to stay committed to UCLA.

Abbey had to stay “country strong.”

So, while her brother went through a three-year treatment at the UNC Children’s Hospital, facing a barrage of scary needles, confusing treatments and learning how to take pills for the first time, Abbey was about 2,560 miles away. Despite the daily FaceTime calls, she still felt distant.

It was easy to feel homesick. 

“Whenever I did get into those really deep lows, I'd always call them,” she said. “And my mom would always tell me, ‘It's okay. You can just let it out. It's sad. He's the most vulnerable person in our family, and I get it. You're really sad that this happened to him, and I know you would take it away from him if you could. But, it did happen to him. He’s country strong, and he's gonna beat it.’”

Becoming a Tar Heel

Entering year three of his cancer battle, Abbey's brother was nearing the final stages of chemotherapy. The treatment was working. 

The summer before Abbey's third and final year at UCLA, she decided that she wanted to pursue an MBA. Initially, Abbey wanted to stay in California for graduate school, but she couldn't apply because of a rigid work experience requirement.

To pursue her newfound dream, she would have to transfer. She would have to find somewhere she could earn her MBA while playing tennis at a competitive level. With her brother’s treatment progressing into the next stage, all the pieces fell into place. 

The obvious choice was to return to her home state.

“I'm really glad I stuck it out at UCLA because I had a really great time there too, and because I've lived (in North Carolina) my whole life,” she said. “I got to experience something new, and I think that I'm a better person now because of that experience.”

At the beginning of the school year, she informed the UCLA coaching staff about her decision. She worked closely with the University’s compliance staff to tackle the complicated process of entering the transfer portal – filling out forms and dealing with paperwork delays. Soon, the floodgates were open, and coaches began reaching out to her.

UNC's Brian Kalbas was one of those coaches, as he wanted Abbey to become a Tar Heel for a long time. As a top player in the country and one of the best junior players, Abbey was a "dream recruit.”

Abbey said the North Carolina coaching staff were the only recruiters she talked to that put academics first, and not her talent. She didn’t want to go to a school that thought she could change its entire program. She wanted a team. 

“I told her the three things that she brings is just incredible competitiveness, incredible toughness and her overall leadership and experience,” Kalbas said. “It is truly invaluable for our team.”

Without knowing the decision on her Kenan-Flagler Business School application yet, she committed to becoming a Tar Heel in December 2021. That decision paid off when Abbey received her acceptance letter in May of 2022. 

“When she got in, she cried,” Denise said. “She was just so excited and so happy. I think she worked really hard. She looked at other schools, but her heart was here, coming home to Carolina.”

The last week of August, Abbey arrived at her first team practice at the Chapel Hill Tennis Club. It was a nostalgic moment — the last time she was at the tennis club, she was 9 years old competing at a junior tournament. 

“There's a sense of excitement, like a new chapter was starting for me, but it was also an old chapter being reopened,” she said.

Now, instead of UCLA blue and gold, Luke wears North Carolina gear to his hospital appointments — much to his UNC doctors' delight.

Sometimes, before matches, Abbey accompanies her brother to his clinic appointments, the next stage in his treatment after being declared cancer-free in December. Most importantly for her, she can finally thank Dr. Patrick Thompson and Dr. John Hipps, the medical professionals who worked closely with her brother for years.

“I love being able to see them save his life in person because of how much they’ve done,” she said. “I’m able to go up to them and be like, ‘Thank you.’ Not over the phone, not through email.”

In return, Abbey’s brother can watch her on the tennis court as she represents the school whose hospital has been an instrumental part in his fight against cancer. Every match, she steps on the court with the words “country strong” tattooed on her back, motivated by his strength and perseverance.

Regardless of her position or if she’s on the bench, Abbey has one goal: to help the team win an NCAA championship in May – a feat the North Carolina team has yet to achieve.

And now, her family can be there to see it. 

2,560 to 28 miles. 

Abbey’s dreams, her sport and her family are all in one place again. 

She’s home.

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com