To many, there are few things as disruptive and disheartening as a cancer diagnosis, but 18 year old Hunter Rowland, of Crosslake, is maintaining a positive outlook that would put most healthy adults to shame.
"I feel sort of in the same place I was in the beginning before they found the mass," Rowland said. "I haven't really cared a whole lot the whole way through. I'm not worried at all. Part of it is so surreal. You see commercials on TV about cancer treatment and things like that and you never think that could be you."
Rowland, a Pequot Lakes High School senior, first became aware of a tumor in his chest in the beginning of November, though they didn't immediately know it was a tumor. After all, he didn't have any symptoms. The mass was discovered basically by accident when a surgeon was addressing additional symptoms that can come from brachydactyly, a genetic condition that causes shortening of bones and, in some cases, cardiac issues.
"Part of it is so surreal. You see commercials on TV about cancer treatment and things like that and you never think that could be you."
— Hunter Rowland
When they went in for a preemptive scan, they saw the mass in his chest.
"And one of the first things they did was take a skeletal survey - so head to toe X-rays - to look for any malformations, anything that would point to anything," his mother, Hope Rowland, said. "During that they found a fullness on the right side of his chest just during one of the X-rays."
Doctors first thought it might be histoplasmosis, a respiratory infection caused by fungus found in soil with bird and bat feces. After several tests seemed to come up without answers, the family changed hospitals. Shortly after, tests identified the mass as a neuroendocrine malignant carcinoid tumor that makes up 1%-2% of all cancers found in the lungs.
"On Dec. 21, we found out it was a malignant tumor," Hope said.
Even though the full diagnosis was finally discovered just before Christmas, Hunter never lost his sense of humor.
"It wasn't the best Christmas present I ever received," Hunter said. "On the same day, Mom came home and said she was sorry but we were going to have frozen pizza. I said, 'You know what? It's not the worst news I've received today.'"
That does not mean the family is free of all anxiousness. Cancer is undeniably nerve-wracking.
"It's still terrifying," Hunter's father, Bill, said. "You don't have answers and you want answers. I don't know what's worse, waiting for answers or getting answers. They both suck."
Even so, the family and their friends fight every day to emulate Hunter's brave attitude.
"He's so positive," Hope said. "He's upbeat. He's not letting anything get him down, so we want to encourage people to live like Hunter and find happiness."
"I don't know what's worse, waiting for answers or getting answers. They both suck."
— Bill Rowland, Father
The whole family draws on a resiliency earned through experience. Hunter and his younger brother, Ridge, are no strangers to hospital visits. Nine years ago, Hunter was diagnosed with an arachnoid cyst, and the only treatment was brain surgery.
Four years later when Ridge developed an arachnoid cyst, Hunter likely served as a role model in a way few big brothers can, providing comfort in the face of what is in reality a major surgery.
In a 2014 interview, Hunter said, "To be honest, I'm pretty proud that I get to be a role model, and I can tell him it's going to be all OK and I'll always be there for him."
Since then Ridge has had more surgeries, and as such, the family is fairly used to doctor visits and long hospital stays. The family is drawing on that past experience now to keep calm even in trying times.
"I have a lot of experience being in hospitals," Hunter said.
"And with Ridge going through so many more surgeries, it just became a normal thing," Hope said.
In addition, a strange experience left Bill and the rest of the family feeling encouraged that God is watching over them. Being a senior, Hunter needed to take senior photos this fall, so he and his mother went to the Historic Log Village in Crosslake for photos in November.
While snapping shots, they suddenly became aware of a black bear hanging out in the village with them. They caught it in a few photos with Hunter. It was a meaningful sign for Bill, who associates bears with his father.
"I've always had a connection with the old man and bears," Bill said in a Facebook post that day. "Before he died, I would videotape the interactions I had with them at my baits and play them for him on the big screen in his den. My favorite video, and probably his too, was of a bear behind our house that made me run all the way back to the house with the camera running the whole time. He laughed like hell every time. I know it might not seem like a sign to anyone else, but I'm telling you, that was it. That's the comfort I needed."
The journey up until this point hasn't been a fun one, but Hunter's tumor was identified early, before he started showing symptoms. The family has high hopes of success.
According to Mayoclinic.org, carcinoid tumors can be very treatable, with as high as a 95% success rate for treatment. The Rowlands are determined to face this challenge head-on. Doctors are still deciding on the best route.
"We're just waiting on the doctors to see if they want to do a bit of chemo or radiation therapy to shrink the tumor before they remove it to make it easier," Hunter said. "If not, then we'll just go into surgery and they will cut it out and probably part of a lobe of my lung."
No matter what, surgery is a must; and because carcinoid tumors can return if any affected cells are left behind, surgery has to be fairly aggressive. Hunter's mass seems to be in one lymph node and a lobe of his lung, which will likely have to be removed.
Somehow, he's still not daunted by that prospect.
"He's constantly joking around and finding something good or funny about it," Hope said. "They said they might need to take his lung and he said, 'I only need one lung anyway.'"
The family is receiving support from friends and family who have learned of Hunter's condition. Joanna Tom is the mother of one of Hunter's best friends. His family was surprised to learn that she had started a GoFundMe page for Hunter.
"I was especially surprised that in one day or 12 hours it got to be over $1,000," Hunter said, "which is crazy. Now we're sitting at almost $4,000."
Not only that, Hunter's friend, Gabe Maske, is his class president. He came up with the idea to sell T-shirts that read #livelikeHunter. All proceeds from T-shirt sales and the GoFundMe page will go toward paying for travel, missed work, medical treatment and an air purifying system for the Rowlands' home.
In the time of COVID-19, the family is taking extra precautions that will only become more extreme when Hunter is undergoing treatment or recovering from surgery, hence the air purifiers.
In spite of all the family is going through, they are also trying to focus on the positive. They have felt blessed and supported, so they are doing their best to share their blessings with the community by paying it forward. They have been paying for groceries and food orders for those behind them in line at establishments.
"I just want people to focus more on the good," Hope said. "There's so much negative going on right now. Hunter could focus on all the negative and mope around and be sad, but instead, he just finds something good."
The family is working to create a site where they can share the story of their journey. In the meantime, those who wish to help can donate at https://www.gofundme.com/f/28do808b2o or buy a T-shirt at https://www.theteehive.com/hunter.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.