The University is a leader in cancer treatment and research, but underneath the oft-publicized work being done, the campus has a wealth of stories of individual cancer patients, survivors and victims.
On Friday night, more than 1,600 students gathered in support of Relay for Life in the University Field House to celebrate victories against cancer, remember those who have lost their battle and fight back against the disease.
The night began by honoring Spencer Hartberg – one of the 64 cancer survivors participating in the event. Hartberg spoke to the crowd about his battle with cancer that began about two years ago, the summer after his sophomore year.
Realizing his ‘darkest fears’
In June 2006 while in the shower, Hartberg said he felt an irregularity in one of his testicles. In the pit of his stomach, Hartberg said he immediately thought it might be cancer, but quickly brushed those thoughts aside.
Hartberg, an electrical engineering senior, said he feared the news a doctor would eventually give him and avoided a visit until everything, including walking, was painful.
When Hartberg finally made his trip to the hospital, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
“It’s not often all your darkest fears are realized in a single sentence,” he said.
Then, before his battle had even started, he was dealt a blow when insurance trouble arose, Hartberg said.
His mother’s insurance provider wouldn’t cover the medications he required, forcing him to switch to the University’s plan, Hartberg said.
As a result, Hartberg often found himself without the best medications. For example, he had to take a medication that would leave him vomiting as a side effect even though better drugs were available, he said.
Hartberg said the experience has left him with a jaded view of insurance companies.
“It seems like they don’t care about the people, their customers,” he said. “I mean it is a business, but it seems they could be doing more. They do everything they can to save money.”
Hartberg kept a positive attitude throughout his battle and he showed it Friday night. He cracked two jokes about his experience with cancer within the first minute of his speech, laughing at himself.
Hartberg said he had a testicle replaced with a silicon substitution to eradicate the cancer, but later his doctor found the disease in his remaining testicle – which rarely happens.
“At least the silicon testicle has a lifetime guarantee – unlike my last one,” he said.
As the bad news kept piling up, Hartberg said he genuinely feared for his life for the first time. He was able to retain most of his remaining testicle and doctors declared him cancer-free in May 2007.
Hartberg said giving his speech felt empowering, and he wanted to convey that even college-aged adults are at risk.
“I think people don’t realize they can get cancer at a young age, so it might be a really good idea to do self-examinations,” he said. “It’s way better to catch it early than have a testicle the size of a bowling ball or a brain full of cancer.”
Running out of options
Five years ago, on the first year of Relay for Life at the University, Aleks Ablamunets was in Hartberg’s position – celebrating his survival through cancer. This year, he became the first University student to be honored and remembered at Relay for Life as someone who lost their battle.
After initially surviving a bout with osteosarcoma – a form of bone cancer – Ablamunets relapsed in September 2006, leading to his death this past New Year’s Day, Jenna Langer co-chairwoman of Relay for Life, said.
Langer said Ablamunets’ entrepreneurial spirit and driven personality made him one of the biggest annual fundraisers for Relay for Life, which raised a net total of $152,000 this year.
Alex Ablamunets, an accounting and entrepreneurship senior, described his cousin as compassionate, humorous, friendly and determined.
Alex Ablamunets said his cousin began working at the age of 14 to help support his family. By the time Aleks Ablamunets died, he had successfully run a house-painting franchise and already started other businesses.
Aleks Ablamunets fought cancer for so long that toward the end there was little traditional medicine could do, his cousin said, yet he still managed to stay positive.
“When he was feeling his worst, that’s when he would make sure everyone else felt their best,” Alex Ablamunets said.
Running out of options, Aleks Ablamunets turned to clinical trial treatment. When his insurance wouldn’t cover a clinical trial he qualified for, he raised $100,000 in a matter of days through his network of friends and business connections to pay for it, his friend and event speaker Patrick Delaney said.
Aleks Ablamunets believed in the trials so much that he volunteered for extra tests and treatments during his trial, Langer said. Even though he didn’t need it, Aleks Ablamunets wanted researchers to have more data to work with, she said.
At the event Friday, Delaney circulated a petition supporting a new legislative act in Aleks Ablamunets’ honor, titled the Access to Cancer Clinical Trials Act of 2007. It is a bill that would prohibit insurance companies from refusing to cover many clinical trials.
“When people die, friends and family often say, ‘This is what that person would’ve wanted,’ ” Delaney said. “But we really don’t know (what he would’ve wanted).”
Delaney said he knew what Aleks Ablamunets wanted most before his death: he wanted to continue to live.