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The Band Plays On

Ryan Haug noticed the swelling one December morning while shaving -- just a small painless area on the left side of his neck.

The 21-year-old didn’t dwell on it. A bass guitar player and college student, he had other things on his mind: the next gig for “Dakota Draw” and his transfer from North Dakota State University in Fargo to Minnesota State University in Moorhead.

The band played, the transfer occurred -- and the swelling proved serious. A biopsy of the lymph gland revealed cancer.

“Back then I didn’t know the first thing about cancer. I thought it was a death sentence for anybody who got it,” says Ryan, now an 18-year survivor. “I got educated pretty fast.”

He and his oncologist Dr. Preston Steen, Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center, recently sat down to share views on cancer survival. Ryan is honorary chair for this year’s “61 for 61” -- a commemoration of Roger Maris’ 61 home runs in 1961and a celebration of cancer survivorship. Events take place in September.

A big hurdle

One of Ryan’s first lessons in cancer was the importance of an accurate, precise diagnosis. Even after he knew he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma -- a highly treatable cancer of the lymphatic system -- he underwent many tests to determine the specifics that would guide treatment.

“Localized Hodgkin’s is successfully treated with radiation alone, but we have to be absolutely certain it’s localized,” says Dr. Steen. “Treatment changes considerably if the disease has spread.”

In the early ’90s, exploratory surgery was the best way to get the information. “Imaging technology has advanced significantly since then,” says Dr. Steen. “Now we have PET scanning. It’s much easier on patients and just as accurate.”

Ryan vividly recalls learning the results of his surgery. “When I found out the cancer had jumped to my liver, it was like getting hit with a baseball bat,” he says. “That’s when I realized -- okay, one thing at a time.”

Top priority: chemotherapy. Every two weeks Ryan went to the Cancer Center to receive an infusion of drugs proven successful in treating advanced Hodgkin’s.

“Getting through seven months of chemotherapy was a big hurdle. You just trudge through it,” he says. “Focusing on other things was key. I kept going to school and playing in the band. Friends, family and my church helped a lot, too.”

Dr. Steen was struck by Ryan’s attitude. “He did what he needed to do, both in his treatment and in his life,” says Dr. Steen. “Maintaining normalcy can be a real challenge.”

Life after cancer

Ryan’s successful treatment and diligent follow-up set the stage for many milestones:

    * Marriage to Tasha in 1994.
    * A career in bio-med equipment at Sanford starting in 1997.
    * His first 10K in 2000 -- the “61 for 61” Home Run/Walk.
    * His first marathon in 2008.
    * More music! He currently plays in “Little Donnie and the Groove Tones.”

But to Ryan, the milestones don’t have to be big. “It’s about the little experiences -- like the taste of food,” he says. “I’ll never forget the awful taste in my mouth after chemo. It was temporary, but to this day, I won’t take taste for granted. Even when life gets hectic and busy, it’s the little things that make the journey.”

Dr. Steen takes in every word, nodding in agreement.

Though he and Ryan work in different departments, their paths occasionally cross. They wave across the parking lot or chat about running. On more than one occasion Ryan has repaired Dr. Steen’s pager.

Moments like these carry meaning.

“To see a patient leading a normal, healthy life nearly 20 years after cancer treatment -- it’s wonderful, indescribable,” says Dr. Steen. “And the thing about Ryan is he always looks so happy. Even when he’s walking down the hallway working. Now I know the reason why.”

Little things.

Posted Date: May 2011