Vowing to take down cancer

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The thought was in AJ Raebel’s mind for nearly eight months.

Yet, he tried to put that thought out of his mind and no where near the surface.

That is until he had no choice.

“The pain got worse,” said Raebel, who last played on the UW-Whitewater football team during the 2007 season when the Warhawks won their first national championship in school history. “It got to the point you realize something’s not right.”

And everything wasn’t right.

Raebel, a two-time All-American linebacker, is in for a battle that cannot be won by drawing up the perfect play on a clipboard.

He is in for a battle with testicular cancer.

“It’s still kind of surreal,” said Raebel, who is 24 years old. “I sometimes wake up in the morning and don’t realize it, and I have to re-realize it everyday that I’m fighting cancer.

“It’s one of those things that you hear people do, you hear people’s stories, but you truly don’t understand it. And I’m still not sure I still do.”

Raebel’s girlfriend, Lissa Robinson, who graduated from UW-Whitewater in 2007, also finds it difficult to describe how she has felt since hearing the news.

“I don’t know if it’s really sunk in yet,” she said. “It hit me so hard. It seems insane.”

UW-Whitewater’s Athletic Director Paul Plinkse knows this all too well, as he battled testicular cancer in 2003.

“Cancer’s a scary thing for anybody,” Plinske said. “It’s one of those situations you never can prepare for.”

The Early Stages

It certainly was scary for Raebel when he found a lump on his left testicle last March.

“It was something unlike anything I ever felt before, so I knew it was weird but didn’t worry about it,” he said.

Raebel said the lump went from a pea size to two or three times the size of a pea by June, but he didn’t want to make it an issue.

Two months later, Raebel saw a doctor who simply gave him some antibiotics to soothe the pain.

When the lump, however, grew significantly by November, he called his brother, an orthopedic physician assistant in Chicago.

“I realized I was answering all the questions wrong,” Raebel said.

The next morning, he had an ultrasound and met with a doctor, who told him what he had known for quite some time.

“I think I shed one tear and then started making jokes about it,” Raebel said.

This was no joking matter, however.

Raebel had immediate surgery to remove his left testicle at the NorthShore Hospital in Glenview, Ill. When Raebel’s pathology report came back a couple weeks later, the results were discouraging.

“Ninety percent of the time with where it was, they told me this isn’t going to come back,” Raebel said. “Unfortunately, I fell in the 10 percent category, and we had a particularly aggressive kind. Not aggressive in deadly, [but] the progression that spreads fast and moves fast.”

Raebel scheduled a Jan. 7 surgery to remove his lymph nodes, the area testicular cancer usually attacks first.

However, after his CAT scan results were read by a surgeon in Indianapolis, Raebel was told that tumors were already present in his lymph nodes, meaning there was a 70 percent chance that it had spread to his brain, lungs or liver.

Thus, his doctors said his only choice was to start chemotherapy.

Shaken but Confident

While Raebel admitted his biggest fear is dying, he was in a positive mood as he started chemotherapy last Monday at the NorthShore Hospital.

Plinske, who won his battle after two surgeries and chemotherapy, has been in contact with Raebel on a daily basis.

“His spirits are unbelievably high, and I’m really encouraged by that,” Plinske said. “But he’s going to fight cancer with a lot of assertion.”

For Raebel, he said the odds are in his favor.

“I’ve got a 95 percent chance I’m going to live,” said Raebel, who graduated from UW-Whitewater last May. “I got my degree in math and 90 percent is fine by me. I’ll take that everyday. So [dying] doesn’t really cross my mind.”

And he believes in what the doctors have told him and his family.

“The oncologist looked my mom in the eyes and shook her hand and said your son’s going to be fine,” Raebel said. “And I don’t really know how exactly I’m going to be fine, but a doctor just doesn’t do that unless they know they got it under control.”

When asked to describe his emotional state leading up to his chemotherapy, Raebel, who participated in the Minnesota Vikings rookie camp in 2008, was open about how cancer has altered his life.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Raebel said. “I’m not really upset about it. My life hasn’t been turned upside down. But it has changed my life significantly. It’s kind of just another punch you got to roll with. Certainly it delayed my life now.”

However, he never questions why he was diagnosed with this cancer.

“I don’t think why me?” Raebel said. “I don’t think I’m any different. I don’t think anybody gets picked out to have this. So why not me? I know I’m in good enough shape. I’m young enough. If anyone can fight cancer I certainly got some of the tools to do that.”

Long Road to Recovery

He’ll need this mindset as he continues his treatments the next eight weeks.

Last week, he received chemotherapy Monday through Friday, where his mom and girlfriend were by his side.

Raebel – who grew out his beard as a team superstition during his football days – will begin losing his hair next week.

“It probably won’t grow back the same,” he said. “You do wonder about that. How am I going to look? It is in the back of my mind.”

To let Raebel know what to anticipate during the chemotherapy sessions, Plinske has offered advice.

“It’s nice to know people that have been through this, who know what your thinking, feeling and fearing,” Raebel said. “And will tell you all the surprises along the way.

“He told me you’re going to be surrounded by people that are dying. You’re going to feel everything inside your body start to die. He told me everything in detail, but at the same time hearing everything made me feel good, because you feel what you can understand. Once you start to understand it, there’s nothing to fear, because you know what you’re facing.”

Nevertheless, he still worries about what the cancer will do to him.

“It’s going to be a long year, no doubt about it,” Raebel said. “I know a lot of people that have died from this. I know a lot of people that have fought this and everyone says chemotherapy sucks; sucks real bad. I still don’t think I’m going to die from this.”

Support Staff

Besides giving Raebel guidance, Plinske has started the Cure 33 Fund, along with football head coach Lance Leipold and Justin Beaver, who played all four years with Raebel at UW-Whitewater.

People can donate to the Cure 33 Fund by giving any denomination with 33 in it, such as $33 or $133 to Commercial Bank in Whitewater or in Janesville, where Raebel resides with Robinson.

Jace Rindahl, who played alongside Raebel for three years at the linebacker position, will do anything to help his friend.

“You make a decision to come to UW-Whitewater and play football and go to school you kind of get into the Warhawk family,” Rindahl said. “If one person goes down we’re all going to be there to support them and get them through it.”

Leipold agreed with Rindahl that now is the perfect time to lend a helping hand.

“Just like you have to be there for your teammate on fourth-and-one, this is the time that’s more important to be there for your teammate,” Leipold said.

Raebel thanks everyone who has wrote on his online journal or who have donated money to his fund.

“It’s been nothing short of amazing,” he said. “Just people I haven’t spoken with in years telling me the way they’ve felt about me. It makes it feel like the fights worth fighting.”