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Junior Rachael Hueftle absentmindedly pulls on the straps of her iPad cover as she tries to speak of the disease that turned her life upside down. Hueftle was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor when she was 8.
“It was actually really weird,” she said. “It was at the end of second grade, the very, very end, and almost every morning before school … I’d wake up in the morning, and I’d throw up, and then I’d be fine the rest of the day.” Hueftle and her parents knew something was wrong, and a visit to the doctor showed a distended, swollen stomach that neither Hueftle nor her parents had noticed before.
“I thought I was just sick or something,” Hueftle said. When the diagnosis came out, Hueftle’s parents were more shocked than she was.
“I knew what it was. I knew it wasn’t a good thing. I knew it was something serious,” Hueftle said.
“I don’t really remember everything, and sometimes my parents are just like, ‘I’m glad you don’t because it was a lot,’” Hueftle said. She had most of her treatments completed over the summer of 2007 but still had to finish things up at the beginning of third grade.
“My friends all knew what was going on, but it was just hard for other people to really understand,” Hueftle said. Other students around her would frequently question why she was wearing a baseball cap and wig, and why she was often out of school.
Though people around Hueftle had questions and concerns, “I was fine with it,” she said.
Some eight years later, that calm, resolute attitude helped Hueftle face cancer again. In December of 2015, a visit to her doctor for a virus resulted in a recommendation to have her enlarged thyroid checked out. After her next checkup with her oncologist, Hueftle knew something might be wrong; her oncologist ordered scans. The scans revealed that her enlarged thyroid contained a cancerous tumor. When her old surgeon came to discuss surgery options, the news set in.
“Mom starts crying,” Hueftle recalled. “My dad is just like, ‘Let’s figure this out.’ And as soon as we start talking timelines, I start crying for a few seconds, and then I pull myself together.”
The diagnosis had an immediate impact. Hueftle went in for surgery Dec. 21, and returned home Dec. 24, just in time for Christmas. With her thyroid removed, she was given radioactive iodine pills for a thyroid scan, which revealed cancer in the lymph nodes and the thyroid bed.
In January, Hueftle was given a radioactive iodine treatment again so that any thyroid cancer cells would pick up the iodine and die from radiation. Hueftle was placed under quarantine for the first week of the treatment, which is still in effect now. She was able to stay at home (though a lead-lined room was the initial plan), but she and her parents had to wear gloves around the house and use other precautions. Despite the comfort of spending time with her parents, Hueftle typically slept 22 hours a day and didn’t have much time for family, friends, or school.
Hueftle assumed she would be able to stay caught up with schoolwork, “… but it ended up not being like that at all,” she said. “I had completely zero energy. Going up six steps would make me completely worn out, and I’d have to sit down.”
It has been four months since Hueftle’s second diagnosis. She has regained some strength and is caught up with school. Her family and friends have been a great support system. When junior Audrey Wagoner was in Children’s Hospital with her own cancer, Hueftle’s mother brought the two girls together. Hueftle’s mom, an employee at Children’s, would bring Wagoner smoothies that summer, and talked about how her daughter had had cancer. Soon, the juniors began texting.
“Rachael would text me before I’d go in the hospital,” Wagoner said. Wagoner appreciated the chance to speak with someone who had gone through a similar experience. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma May 28, 2015. In the weeks before her diagnosis, Wagoner knew something was wrong. She noticed a large lump on her neck and often showed it to her peers.
“I had a pretty bad feeling, and I was telling people it was Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Wagoner said. “I was looking at [my] symptoms on WebMD and found it on there, and I diagnosed myself on WebMD.”
She was met with dubious responses from friends. “She talked to us, she’s like, ‘I found this on WebMD,’ and we’re like, ‘You don’t have cancer, Audrey! Calm down!’” junior Julia Crump, one of Wagoner’s closest friends, said.
After she sprained her neck in a car accident, Wagoner showed her injury to athletic trainer Mrs. Melissa Brusnahan, who told her to get the lump checked out immediately.
The lump on Wagoner’s neck blocked her airway and limited her ability to run during tennis practices. After the pain spread down her arm, Wagoner knew it was time to go to a doctor. The doctor ran several tests on that day in late May, and the results reached Wagoner that night.
Wagoner’s treatment involved a mix of chemotherapy drugs given to her over three days, followed by a several week-long rest. Wagoner received her treatment through a picc line, a tube inserted into her arm, and the treatment was repeated four times.
Several months later, she went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for proton therapy. According to the Mayo Clinic, proton therapy uses protons instead of x-rays to allow higher doses of radiation with fewer risks.
Wagoner appreciated the support she received from Marian during this treatment. “I’m so grateful for the support of the girls in the school, with the bracelets, the videos, the prayers, and the kind words,” Wagoner said.
Some of Wagoner’s friends and relatives visited Wagoner while she was receiving proton therapy, giving her the support she needed to overcome cancer. “As of right now, I don’t have any more treatment, but they don’t call it cured for like five years,” Wagoner said.
“[There’s] nothing positive to take out of it,” Wagoner said. “I don’t think there’s one thing that I want to do again.” Wagoner admitted that she blocked out most of the events of the past year, and she prefers to simply move on from the situation.
Hueftle feels the same way. “Some people, when they find out, they’re really mad, they’re really depressed, or they’re really angry. But I was just fine with it. I mean, no one obviously wants it, but it was just something I had to do,” Hueftle said.
Cancer is far from pretty. According to the American Cancer Society, about 10,380 American children under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer in 2016. Fortunately, more than 80 percent of children with cancer survive more than five years. Despite improvements over the years, nausea, fatigue, and numerous other side effects still plague those unfortunate enough to experience it. Hueftle and Wagoner’s matter-of-fact attitudes helped them face those challenges with immense determination. Rather than dwell on their encounter with cancer, these two juniors are ready to put the past behind them and not focus on sorrow or pain. With the help of their loved ones and support from the Marian community, Hueftle and Wagoner hope to beat their cancers and enjoy a hope-filled future.