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Janesville teenager is clear after battling testicular cancer for eight months

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JOHN N. BARRY
July 18, 2010
— Every athlete dreams of setting records.

Zach Whalen's record is a nightmare.


Whalen was diagnosed with testicular cancer in November 2009. Only 18 years old at the time, Whalen is believed to be the youngest person in state history with testicular cancer.


Nobody deserves, much less dreams, about that kind of record.


Whalen underwent surgery Dec. 8 to remove a cancerous left testicle, followed by three aggressive chemotherapy treatments over nine weeks. Despite the usual side effects of chemotherapy—nausea, fatigue, loss of hair—Whalen fought the battle head on. The 2009 Janesville Craig High School graduate forced himself to work out, eat right and stay positive.


Last week, Whalen had a follow-up visit to his oncology doctor to discuss the results of his latest CAT scan. The news was positive. The CAT scan was negative. Whalen, for now, is cancer-free.


In three weeks, Whalen will represent Janesville's American Legion baseball team in the state all-star game at Miller Park in Milwaukee.


The nightmare, hopefully, is behind him.


The only outward sign that he underwent nine weeks of intensive chemotherapy? His hair.


"My hair was straight (before the chemotherapy) but came back curly," Whalen said. "Weird, huh?


"But overall, I feel much better. I've actually gained weight through all this. I've noticed that, baseball-wise, my vision isn't as good as it was before the chemo, but I hope the prescription sunglasses I ordered will help."


Whalen's vision doesn't seem to be affecting him much at the plate. He leads Janesville's Legion team with a .477 batting average, including a two-home-run game.


Legion coach Bob Schenck, who has been involved in youth baseball in the city for more than 35 years, said Whalen epitomizes what sports are all about.


"For a coach, a kid like Zach Whalen comes around once in a lifetime," Schenck said. "He's the first one to the ballpark and the last one to leave. He leads by example, and that's why we made him captain and why he's going to be successful in life. He gets it.


"With everything he went through, and all those times he was laid up in bed, I never once have heard him complain or feel sorry for himself. He's just a great kid."


As with most active children growing up, Whalen's medical mishaps included the normal bumps and bruises. That changed after a weightlifting session last November at UW-Whitewater, where he was a freshman.


Whalen felt an abnormal pain in his groin that persisted into the night. He blamed it on overexertion. When the pain didn't let up in the morning, Whalen immediately went to his doctor.


The diagnosis? Three doctors weren't sure because, at 18, Whalen was considered too young for testicular cancer. A CAT scan revealed the bad news. A mass in Whalen's left testicle was cancerous.


Best-case scenario? The cancer was limited to the left testicle, and surgical removal would alleviate the problem.


Worst-case scenario? The malignant tumor cells had metastasized and spread to Whalen's organs.


"I felt all along that after surgery, the cancer would be gone," Whalen said. "I knew I had to go through the chemo anyway and that the cancer could still spread, but I just had a feeling that there wasn't any more cancer."


Whalen was fitted with a prosthetic testicle after the surgery. He was able to bank sperm before the surgery in case his sperm count doesn't come back so that one day he might be able to have children.


The chemotherapy treatments forced Whalen to take off the second semester at Whitewater. He will transfer to UW-Oshkosh in the fall and hopes to make the Titan baseball team.


"Zach's the kind of kid that's going to work hard and bring a lot of fire to that program," Craig baseball coach Victor Herbst said.


"When he was diagnosed in November and knew he couldn't play at Whitewater, he came to me and asked to be a part of our program. It was a great boost to our team and allowed Zach to take his mind off of things."


Whalen, a former All-Big Eight player at Craig, served as an assistant coach at his alma mater this past season.


Whalen said his journey to recovery would not have been possible without his parents, Kelli Seares and Bob Whalen. They spent countless hours driving him to and from appointments, while also lending an ear when he needed to talk.


Whalen's dream of playing collegiate baseball is ahead of him. The nightmare and the record are behind him.



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