Round of his Life: South Hamilton senior golfer continues his fight against cancer
JEWELL – The silence stretched, first for a second and then for three … five … 10 seconds more. The only sounds came from breaths, from the ticking of a nearby clock and from slight uncomfortable movements in the chairs seated around a small square table inside the Jewell Golf and Country Club clubhouse.
The words didn’t come for some time but, truthfully, they weren’t needed.
The eyes screamed the words the mouth wouldn’t let escape. The eyes couldn’t lie.
A break of eye contact and far off look showed the vulnerability. And then those eyes closed, perhaps in the hope that when they opened it would all just be a nightmare – a long, torturous nightmare that no parent should ever have to endure.
And finally a tear – trickling down the left cheek and surely one of thousands that have been shed over the past five months.
It was Mother’s Day, and for this proud and scared to death mother the question still hung in the air: What were those first few weeks like when your world was turned upside down?
As Rachel Haugland exhaled, grabbed a nearby tissue and wiped the tear away, she was finally ready to speak. Her voice cracked, and then she whispered.
“It was awfully hard in the beginning …”
And then the silence returned.
Jake Haugland is a typical 18-year-old boy. He enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his friends, and he would really like a smart phone if and when his parents, Kirk and Rachel, finally agree.
He’s quiet. He’s polite. He’s a good kid – a trait that seemingly everyone can agree on.
And he’s dealing with a personal hell that no one his age should be forced to tackle.
It’s been almost five months now since the South Hamilton senior, who will don the cap and gown and receive his diploma this weekend, received the phone call that cold December morning and learned that he had cancer; Stage 2 Anaplastic Large-Cell Lymphoma (ALCL), a rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, to be exact.
ALCL occurs in approximately seven percent of non-Hodgkin lymphoma patients, but in 10 to 30 percent of the children that are diagnosed.
The good news: doctors told him there’s an 80 to 90 percent cure rate.
“To me, of course, I think 80 to 90 percent and that’s good … but I’m also thinking the 10 to 20 percent … that’s huge,” Rachel, a nurse at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, said as the words trailed off.
Jake’s journey began last November when he said he discovered a lump under his right arm in the armpit area.
“It occasionally hurt, but for the most part it didn’t hurt at all,” he said.
He showed his mom anyway.
“He lifted up his elbow to show me and I could see it from across the room,” Rachel said. “It was the size of a shooter marble and it was a lymph node that was enlarged. I honestly did not think it was anything of significance; I thought he had mono because there was at least one case going around the school and enlarged lymph nodes go with that.”
Ten days later, right after Thanksgiving, Jake found another lump underneath his right shoulder. A second trip to the doctor followed.
“At that point I’m still thinking mono in my mind and the surgeon that we went to see at the beginning of December told us there was a less than one percent chance of it being something bad,” Rachel said.
The family decided to wait until the winter break to have a biopsy performed, and during that time Jake continued to wrestle for South Hamilton.
On Dec. 21, a biopsy was performed on the enlarged lymph node under his arm, and Jake still carries a 1 1/2-inch scar reminder of the procedure. The Hauglands had to wait five days – Merry Christmas! – for the results to come back.
And their worst fears were realized.
“The surgeon called me actually,” Jake said of that Dec. 26 phone call. “When he told me I didn’t really think anything about it. I knew it would suck … he said my life would be turned upside down.”
Jake did have a couple questions for his mom though.
“One of Jake’s comments was, ‘What happened to the less than one percent?’ And he followed that up with, ‘Did I misunderstand?’ And I told him, ‘No, it really was that one percent,'” Rachel said.
It didn’t take Jake and his parents long to begin preparing for what was to come.
“After those five days of waiting it was a relief to at least find out something,” Kirk said. “And I think very shortly thereafter it was OK, now we know what we can do.”
Jake went through a bone marrow biopsy to see if the cancer had spread to the bones; it had not. And on Dec. 31 he had a portacath implanted just below his left shoulder that would be used for his upcoming chemotherapy treatments.
Jake began the chemotherapy treatments on Jan. 8. He went through the four-hour procedure six times in three-week intervals, finally ending in late April.
“I really didn’t have any idea what to expect and I wasn’t too worked up about it,” Jake said. “I just figured I’d go take the first one and figure it out for myself.”
Just the word “chemotherapy” is enough to give you the chills. The horror stories of prolonged vomiting, hair loss and non-stop exhaustion are common.
“They told me I would most likely lose my hair, which I lost around my third treatment,” Jake said. “My head started hurting and I’d put my hand over my hair and it would fall out, so I just buzzed it.”
Luckily, Jake didn’t have to deal with serious bouts of nausea, but exhaustion was always present.
“For the first three or four days after the chemotherapy I’d be jittery and tired, as awkward as that sounds,” he said. “The steroids they gave me would give me jitters, but I’d be tired because the chemotherapy would just knock me out. But after four days it would be better and I’d be fine for two weeks until the next one.”
“He would be off his feet and wouldn’t really care if he ate or not for probably three or four days afterwards,” Rachel said.
“It was getting used to a new normal,” Kirk said. “After a couple of treatments, we kind of got used to what to expect.”
Through it all though, Jake stayed the course with his school work. Oh sure, there were missed days for doctor’s appointments, but for the most part he walked the halls at South Hamilton High School every day.
The school did everything it could to accommodate Jake as well. A pillow and blanket for him were placed in the nurse’s office and when he got tired, well, he slept.
“He’s been solid like a rock,” Rachel said. “I’ve been very proud of him to keep the commitment to school and to do what needs to be done and do it with a good attitude.”
“He’s been better than his mom and dad, that’s for sure,” Kirk said.
The overwhelming support of family, neighbors, friends and even people Jake didn’t know have been more beneficial than those giving the encouragement can fathom, the family said.
“The community has done a great blessing to us,” Rachel said. “The outpouring of well wishes and prayers … it has meant so much to us.”
“Thoughts and hugs and cards from people that we didn’t know; it’s been unbelievable,” Kirk said.
Not even cancer could keep Jake off the golf course this spring. As a returning veteran member off last season’s Class 2A fourth-place team, he wanted to be on the course with his teammates as they attempted to reach even new heights this year.
And, chemotherapy or not, he hasn’t missed one single meet.
“Jake’s playing at the level that he’s played the last few years and he’s even played a little better,” South Hamilton boys’ golf coach Mark Ullestad said. “And I think the kids have been real good with Jake. They give him a hard time about not having hair on his head and he’s a good-natured young man about it.”
The only thing that’s really changed is the cart that Jake now uses during practice and competitive rounds. That Iowa High School Athletic Association granted him a waiver to use a cart; without it his prep career would likely be over.
“I initially asked the doctor for the cart primarily because I figured carrying the bag would hurt (because of the portacath), but it was the energy that I really needed it for,” Jake said. “But other than that it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. It’s kind of nice to get away from things.”
Jake played a key role in the Hawks’ Heart of Iowa Conference tournament championship at the Tournament Club of Iowa in Polk City earlier this month, and a few days later he shot an even-par round at Jester Park in Granger to claim the medalist honor in a dual meet.
And, yes, he’ll be back in his cart doing everything in his power to propel South Hamilton back to the state tournament on Friday when the Hawks play in a 2A district meet at Fox Ridge Golf Course in Dike.
“Jake’s a tough kid,” Ullestad said. “He doesn’t really want to bring light to the fact that he has cancer or use it as a crutch at all. He just wants to go out and play golf and I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a really good day on Friday.”
Another trip to the state tournament would be fantastic. A state title – the Hawks are certainly capable – would be the icing. There would be hugs and high-fives and, yes, probably a few more tears.
It would be a welcome distraction for the Hauglands, who still have one more giant hurdle to clear on Jake’s hopeful road to recovery.
Jake’s next positron emission tomography (PET) scan is scheduled for June 26. Simply put, it will tell him if the cancer is gone, or if another round of treatment is in order.
With ALCL, if the scan comes back clear, doctors tell the family there’s a 90 percent chance that the cancer will not return. And if in two years it has not returned at all then they say he’s free from its clutches forever.
“That’s good to have,” Rachel said. “With something like breast cancer, it kind of trails you forever, so it’s kind of nice to have that cut-off window.”
Jake would love to say he’s not worried about those results. But this is his life, not a mundane high school problem that simply dissolves, we’re talking about.
“I’ve always prepared for the worst,” he said. “I always try to think of the worst outcome so it doesn’t surprise me. Not even just with cancer … probably not the best way to think about things.”
For now Jake is content to wait. Good, bad, whatever the outcome, those results can wait. He’s too busy enjoying the present.
“Right now I think I’m pretty good,” he said. “I don’t think about it at all, or I try not to. I’m content in just waiting. I feel fine, but I guess I felt fine before, too.”
The silence became less and less frequent as Jake, Kirk and Rachel opened up about their five-month battle. There were some laughs and an unspoken bond that has only made them stronger as the cold months of winter have given way to the green grass and sunny skies of spring.
And as they walked away as the sun began to set in the background, one word hung in the air – a word never spoken but certainly felt through the glances and the smiles and even the tears.