Kees Wolterstorff has loved math since he was a little kid.
Give him a difficult equation, and he will enjoy solving it. Especially because, with math, there is clarity and certainty in the answers.
“There’s no gray area,” he said. “You’re right or you’re wrong.”
At age 14, a cancer diagnosis threatened to upset the logical arithmetic of his life. Suddenly, all his plans for school and fun had to be shoved aside, replaced with doctor appointments, PET scans and hospital visits.
And with it came the unknown question: what would happen next?
But Kees (pronounced Case) simply tackled his illness like any other challenging math problem: solving it step by step.
“I didn’t like it, but it was something to go through,” he said. “Through the whole process, I was just going at it one day at time.”
The cancer showed up in February during his freshman year at City High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
His mom took him to the doctor’s office because he had flu-like symptoms. Examining him, the doctor asked, “What’s that lump in your neck?”
Kees and his mom looked at each other, confused. Kees touched his neck and noticed a large lump under the skin. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed it before.
The doctor ordered tests. While they waited for the results, Kees named the lump Greg.
About a week later, after the lump’s removal and biopsy, Kees and his parents, Klaas Wolterstorff and Tracey Gebbia, sat down with pediatric oncologist Sharon Smith, MD, at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to learn about his diagnosis.
He had Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph glands. It was stage 4, having spread to a spinal vertebra.
“This is a scary time,” Dr. Smith acknowledged to the shocked family.
But, she added, there is reason for hope.
“This is very curable,” she said.
That word, curable, “made all the difference in the world to us,” Gebbia said.
‘An excellent prognosis’
About 8,500 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma each year in the U.S. It is the most common cancer diagnosed in teens age 15 to 19, according to the American Cancer Society.
Most cases show up in two groups—in young people in their teens and 20s, and in adults older than 65. The cure rate exceeds 80 percent.
“It is common to have spread at the time of diagnosis,” Dr. Smith said. “Thankfully this condition, even when it has spread and is stage 4, has an excellent prognosis.”
The treatment involves a relatively short but intense period of chemotherapy.
For Kees, that meant interrupting a busy high school life. Besides a challenging academic load, he takes part in forensics and debate. He sings in the choir and likes to ski. All that took a back seat to his chemotherapy regimen.
Three weeks after his doctor’s visit for the flu, he was admitted to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital for three days for inpatient chemo treatments. A week after being released, he went to the outpatient infusion clinic for another dose.
That completed his first round of chemo. He repeated that process six times.
At first, Kees experienced few side effects.
“This was really toxic stuff,” he said. “I was surprised I was doing so well.”
During the second chemo round, he noticed he no longer liked the taste of water.
“Until you lose it, you never really realize how great it is,” he said.
Around the third cycle, nausea took hold.
“It wasn’t just normal nausea, like you feel when you’re about to throw up,” he said. “It was different. It’s a constant feeling of cruddy-ness.”
As his hair began to fall out, he went bald on video. He recorded himself pulling his hair out by the handful.
Fatigue also became his constant companion.
“That was probably the most I have ever slept in a period of time,” he said. “The more chemo I got, the more tired I got each time.”
Through the four and half months of treatment, the family drew support from their church community and a wide network of friends and family.
“I was scared the whole way,” Gebbia said. “I was horrified and terrified. But I knew the world was praying for us and that made a world of difference.”
On July 12, Kees finally reached his last chemo treatment. And his scans, physical exam and lab work showed no sign of cancer.
“He was in complete remission at the end of his therapy,” Dr. Smith said.
On a September morning three months later, Kees returned for his first follow-up appointment with Dr. Smith and Jenna Gedminas, MD, a fellow in pediatric hematology and oncology.
Kees said he was almost, but not quite, back to his usual energy level.
“I’m at 97 percent,” he said.
He asked about dark spots on his skin. Dr. Gedminas explained that chemotherapy can cause skin sensitivity. They would likely fade with time.
He joked about whether his skin could turn scaly, like a lizard.
She laughed. “You think you’re going to turn into a superhero? I’ve never seen that happen.”
“Shucks,” he said. “There goes my dreams.”
Now 15 and starting his sophomore year of high school, Kees was already back on track, pursuing his goals, aiming for college scholarships. Someday, he wants a career in astrophysics. Or computer science.
Dr. Smith encouraged him to pursue those goals.
“He’s an excellent student and a really great kid,” she said. “He’s doing fabulous. He is currently in remission and has an excellent prognosis.”
Kees is more focused on the future than the medical hurdles he has just overcome.
“It never really got to me that I have cancer,” he said. “So I never really got that feeling of “Whoo, this is done.'”