Mars teen's gameplan: Beat cancer

August 5, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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Mars High senior Colin Vandenberghe is fighting stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma. miKe kilroy/crqanberry eagle

It was a particularly rough day for Colin Vandenberghe at UPMC Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh.

He had just suffered through a battery of excruciating tests.

He was in pain.

He was scared.

Colin rose from his bed and shuffled to the window. He looked down to see a dozen of his friends from Mars Area High School and family members holding up signs and balloons in a grassy field below him.

Suddenly, one of the worst days of his illness has become one of the best.

“The support has been unreal,” said Colin, lips quivering as he spoke, blinking away tears. “I'm speechless, honestly. Just knowing people have my back is getting me through this.”

What Colin, an incoming senior at Mars, is trying to get through is something most 17-year-olds never have to worry about.

In May, Colin was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

He's in a fight for his life.

Mars High senior Colin Vandenberghe is fighting stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. miKe kilroy/crqanberry eagle

Something was wrong

Colin didn't think anything of it.

He felt the bump, tender to the touch, under his left armpit, but the multi-sport athlete at Mars chalked it up as a sports injury.

As a wrestler and football player, toughness was important to him. A little bulge wasn't going to stop him.

Then, just like that, it went away.

It was right about the time school was shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic. When the bump returned — bigger this time — along with shortness of breath, his mother, Renee Vandenberghe, called the doctor.

“We thought it was COVID,” she said. “They told us, 'Well, don't go in to the hospital if it's being managed at home.”

The family heeded that advice and Colin seemed to improve.

Little did Renee and her husband, Pete Vandenberghe, know, the cancer was already spreading from lymph node to lymph node.

“This was during the lockdown, so he walked around in a hoodie and played video games, didn't really go anywhere, so we didn't really notice it as much,” she said.

In May, the weather broke and the Vandenberghe family took a long-awaited camping trip. Colin and his friends peeled away from the campsite to play basketball at a nearby court.

Colin knew something was wrong. He couldn't catch his breath.

“His lips turned blue,” Renee said.

That's when she noticed the bumps — at least a dozen of them all across his chest. At first, she thought they were bug bites, but the nodules were hard to the touch.

Deep down, Renee knew what they were. She wasn't ready to admit it to herself yet.

“I was a nurse for 20 years, but I turned into that Google doctor,” she said. “I was trying to talk myself out of it. I called my mother, who was also a nurse and I said, 'I think I already know what it is.'

“We packed up camp and we headed down to Children's.”

Colin had to endure five days of painful tests to rule out other causes. His lungs were so weakened, he had to grit through tortuous procedures without sedation.

“The bone marrow test was the worst,” Colin said. “It was so rough. I don't think I've had pain worse than that.”

Finally, they had their diagnosis: Hodgkin's lymphoma — and one that hadn't presented normally.

Oddly, the family took comfort in the final diagnosis.

“I was shocked, but kind of relieved,” Colin said, “It could have been leukemia.”

'I can beat this'

Then the reality sunk in that it was still cancer and he was staring down an arduous road to recovery.

Colin, though, had stared down adversity before on the football field and on the wrestling mat. “I can beat this” was his first thought.

“I think my personality comes from football and wrestling,” Colin said. “It's made me tough.”

He's had to be.

His lymphatic system was so ravaged, he was retaining copious amounts of fluid.

“He was so swollen, he literally would stand up and he would have fluid trapped all over his body,” Renee said. “His body wasn't working very well.”

Colin spent 17 harrowing days in the hospital. All he wanted to do was go home.

“He didn't even want to stay the first night,” Pete said. “He still just thought he had a cold.”

But Colin knew it as much more than that. As an athlete, he knew his body and its limits.

And he knew his body wasn't responding like it should.

Now, Colin is doing his best to slog through. Some days are better than others.

He's taken up fishing again — the solace helps him focus his mind on the fight, especially before his chemotherapy treatments that come every other week.

The chemo takes its toll on Colin, especially during the first two or three days after, he said.

“I'm pretty tired and sick,” he said.

Standing strong

Colin is finding the mental challenges just as difficult, but has been blessed with support.

His older brother, Jeremy, 23, and younger brother, Logan, 14, have also been there for him. Jeremy sat at his bedside each night at Children's Hospital and Logan gets up early to make him pancakes during Colin's treatment.

His friends too have helped Colin through it.

“They're great friends,” he said. “I wouldn't want anyone else.”

His parents simply try to stay positive for Colin.

It isn't always easy.

“We cry every day,” Renee said.

“You have to be strong for him,” Pete added. “We break down, he sees that. If we're strong, he'll stay strong.”

Colin's prognosis is generally good — Renee said her son has a 75 percent chance to beat it. Colin is in the middle of his chemotherapy treatments and the more than a dozen tumors throughout his lymphatic system have responded to the treatment.

The family prefers to focus on the 75 percent, not the 25 percent.

“Lymphoma research has shown that attitude is everything,” said Renee. “Lymphoma responds to positivity. It's a good and a bad cancer. It's good because it responds well to treatment. It's bad because ... everything in your body is affected by it.”

Every part of Colin's life has been affected by it.

Fightin' Colin

Colin was looking forward to his senior season on the football field at Mars for the Fightin' Planets.

He won't get a chance to play.

“They have football practice going on now, and it just stinks,” Colin said.

Others in the community — and even outside of it — are going to battle for Colin.

On Colin's 17th birthday, July 2, members of the football team, Adams and Middlesex township fire departments and Middlesex police rode by his house in a parade to wish him well.

No one will wear his No. 16 jersey this season, and Mars head football coach Scott Heinauer dipped into his own pocket to purchase No. 16 decals for every member of the team to wear on their helmets this season.

A group of Colin's friends also held a flag football fundraiser to help pay his skyrocketing medical bills.

“The outpouring from the community has been amazing,” Pete said. “I mean, tripping over themselves to help us.”

Stacks of cards for Colin roll in each day. Often, they contain gift cards for food.

Current and former NFL players have even reached out.

Erie native and former Cincinnati Bengal fullback Brian Milne visited Colin last week. When Milne was 17, he was also diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma and beat it.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, who had his own battle with Hodgkin's lymphoma when he was at the University of Pittsburgh, sent Colin a heartfelt video message.

“I know what you are going through; I've been there before,” Conner said in the message. “Keep strong. Stay positive. Keep fighting. Soon it will be a distant memory for you. Everyone with the Steelers will be thinking about you. I know you can get through it.”

Colin is dumbfounded by that kind of support.

It also serves as motivation.

To keep going.

To keep battling.

To come out on the other side.

“I just have to look forward and push right through it,” Colin said, eyes tearing up again. “Knowing that people have beat this and had a lot of success after helps. It really shows you can really do anything after and have a normal life.”

Butler Eagle
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