Parents grateful knee injury led to discovery of daughter's tumor

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cheri and Matt Diehls will forever be grateful for their daughter Hayley's torn knee ligament.

Had it not been for the painful injury, doctors might have missed the almond-sized tumor at the base of Hayley's brain.

Today, Hayley is a National Honor Society student at Janesville Parker High School. The 17-year-old senior looks forward to attending UW-Stevens Point, where she will study to be a Spanish teacher.

But Hayley's future has not always been so bright. Her young life turned for the worse early this year in physical education class. She was playing kickball when she heard a snap, and her left knee buckled.

A doctor diagnosed Hayley with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, one of the most important of four strong ligaments of the knee. On March 22, she had surgery to repair the injury.

The next day she began throwing up and couldn't stop.

Hayley's doctor admitted her to the hospital with what he thought was a narcotic intolerance. Hayley was on strong pain medication for the first time in her life after surgery, and she'd been placed on aspirin therapy to prevent blood clots.

After a full day and night of vomiting, the doctor ordered a CT scan.

"That is when we realized our lives would never be the same," Cheri remembers. "They found the tumor, and Hayley was taken by ambulance to American Family Children's Hospital in Madison."

Doctors think Hayley's tumor had been there for several years. After she took aspirin, the tumor began to bleed and caused cerebral spinal fluid to accumulate. This, in turn, caused her to vomit, Cheri says.

On April 1, a pediatric neurosurgeon removed an ependymoma tumor, which had not spread but contained some cancer cells.

Hayley tears up when she talks about what happened next.

"They used the word malignant a lot when they talked to me," she says. "I didn't understand what malignant meant at first. I wanted to know if I was going to lose all my hair."

By the end of April, Hayley was traveling to Madison five days a week for more than six weeks of radiation therapy. First she arrived on crutches, then with a knee brace because she was still recovering from knee surgery. By the end, she was skipping down the hallway, announcing, "Hayley is here."

She says she often slept through her 10 minutes of treatment.

All this happened during Hayley's junior year at Parker. Still, she finished with a 3.5 grade-point average.

"We had to get creative with her schedule," Cheri says. "She was in constant communication with her teachers. She had to drop all of her afternoon classes for radiation therapy."

Family, friends and others kept close.

"I was getting texts and calls from people I didn't even know," Hayley says. "Support from everyone kept me strong."

Even her younger brother's third-grade class at Van Buren Elementary School made Hayley a get-well banner and cards.

As advisor of the LINK program, Parker High School teacher Alana Rankin has known Hayley for two years.

"Hayley is among a select group of juniors and seniors who help eighth-graders make the transition to ninth grade," Rankin says. "The students talk to them about how to set goals, speak to teachers and bring positivity to the day."

Rankin visited Hayley in the hospital shortly after her brain surgery.

"I didn't realize how much pain and nausea she had because her attitude was so positive," Rankin recalls. "Her perseverance is remarkable. She has never taken her eye off the prize of wellness and getting better."

Rankin does not name Hayley but uses her situation to teach and motivate other students.

"I can use Hayley as an example of someone who chooses not to be held down by her situation," Rankin says. "She could have chosen to be down and out. But she has not. Hayley reminds you that life is good."

Hayley sees herself as strong and positive, "unless I'm facing a pre-calculus test," she says.

The hospital discharged Hayley on April 7. The next day, friends and family took turns pushing her in a wheelchair around the track at Parker High School's Relay for Life.

"It was so important for me to go," Hayley says. "I wanted to show that cancer can affect anyone. I wanted to show that, if it affects you, something good can come of it."

Hayley has made steady progress. On June 10, she finished radiation therapy. Four days later, she traveled to Argentina on a student-exchange trip with a handful of other students.

Hayley continues to fully engage in life. Earlier this month, she and her family flew to Disney World as part of a trip through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Traveling with Hayley were her parents, her 13-year-old sister, Brenna, and her 10-year-old brother, Carsen.

"I cried when the doctors referred us to Make-A-Wish," Cheri says. "That's the kind of stuff that happens to everyone else's kids. They really gave us the royal treatment. We want to go back and volunteer."

Hayley's three- and six-month checkups have gone well. Her magnetic resonance imaging tests were clear. She will be examined every three to four months for the next two years. After two years, she will be examined yearly for the rest of her life to assure the tumor doesn't return.

In the meantime, family members wonder what would have happened, if Hayley's tumor had not been discovered. As Thanksgiving approaches, they know what they will be most thankful for around the dinner table.

"Lots of times cancer can tear a family apart, but we came together," Cheri says. "Thank God Hayley tore her ligament.

"We say God tore it for her."

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for the Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

Last updated: 6:56 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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