U student overcomes rare form of cancer

John Verly was one of only 24 people under age 21 ever diagnosed with CNS lymphoma.

Carly Schramm

It was John VerlyâÄôs mother who first noticed over breakfast June 21 that something was wrong with her son. His eyes were focusing in opposite directions and he looked like he could be blind. Now, after seven rounds of chemotherapy, six weeks of intensive radiation and a high-dose chemotherapy and stem cell transplant procedure, the 21-year-old University of Minnesota student is cancer free. VerlyâÄôs life was put on hold when he was diagnosed with primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma. At the time, he was one of only 24 people worldwide under the age of 21 ever diagnosed with the disease. Even though this cancer singled him out, he was by no means alone in his fight. As a member of the Minnesota chapter of FarmHouse Fraternity, his brothers on campus and across the nation supported him by raising money for his treatments and shaving their heads when he underwent the stem cell transplant in December. âÄúIn some ways this has been a blessing,âÄù VerlyâÄôs father, Pat, said. âÄúThere have been smiles, laughs, tons of hugs, and itâÄôs been humbling to see people praying for you and your son.âÄù Before he was diagnosed, VerlyâÄôs parents took him to multiple doctors for MRIs, but no one could find a conclusive answer. Even though a spinal tap at St. JosephâÄôs Hospital in Minneapolis on June 25 revealed that it was in fact cancer making him sick, the doctors still could not accurately diagnose him. But the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place July 27 when Verly went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to have a biopsy taken of the left side of his brain. His parents did not want him to get the biopsy because of its riskiness, but Verly desperately wanted answers and pushed for the operation. The procedure left him unable to control the left side of his body, but doctors were able to diagnose him with lymphoma. Primary CNS lymphoma is rare and typically occurs in patients over the age of 50 or in patients with a weakened immune system as a result of AIDS. The first round of chemotherapy began the next day and continued every two weeks for a total of six rounds. When Verly was switched to a different type of chemotherapy, the shrinking tumor quadrupled in size. The only option left was radiation therapy, which was the most risky treatment option because of the potential long-term effect of brain damage. The chemotherapy did not bother him too much, he said, because he knew he had to do it. Radiation was a different story. âÄúIt was hard to get motivated, because I could be turning myself into a vegetable,âÄù Verly said. Doctors told Verly he now has a 10 percent chance of developing dementia as a result of the radiation, and symptoms could start showing in six months to three years. But he pushed through the radiation sessions until the day after Christmas, when the MRI scans finally turned up negative. âÄúIt was my Christmas present to myself,âÄù Verly said. To ensure there were no traces of lymphoma left behind, he then underwent a stem cell transplant and an intense round of high-dosage chemotherapy, which caused him to lose all his hair. As of two weeks ago, VerlyâÄôs cancer is now officially in remission. He will continue to have frequent checkups and yearly MRI scans to make sure the cancer does not come back. Verly is now living at home in Marshall, Minn., and plans to start school again in the fall as a junior. He is attending intensive therapy sessions three times a week to regain his strength and mobility after the biopsy. He no longer needs a cane to walk, and he believes by fall semester he will be able to run again. Although Verly plans to major in agriculture education, his true passion lies in public speaking. Verly started the University Speech Team in 2007, which fell apart after he left for treatment. Despite his inspiring story, he does not want to speak about cancer but instead about agriculture. Brandon Walters, a 21-year-old agriculture education major and FarmHouse member, said VerlyâÄôs sense of humor was missed in the house and said âÄúit shows a lot of strength at such a young ageâÄù to maintain the upbeat attitude that Verly has had. âÄúThis experience has brought us closer,âÄù VerlyâÄôs father said. âÄúAnd thatâÄôs an understatement.âÄù