Camas football star tackles testicular cancer

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

Published:

 

Drew Clarkson tackles testicular cancer

Clarkson aims to raise money, awareness

Drew Clarkson is one of the hosts of the third annual 24 Hour Everyone Walk event at Doc Harris Stadium in September, and the Testicular Cancer Society is one of the charities that will benefit.

Camas assistant football coach Dale Rule has set a goal to walk at least 90 miles in a 24-hour period on the track at Doc Harris Stadium. Last year, he walked 79 miles.

Rule said that 20 percent of the proceeds will go to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 20 will go to the Bald Faced Truth Foundation, 20 to testicular cancer, and the other 40 percent will go to local schools.

Rule said his goal is to get 1,000 people to donate one dollar per mile, but he will accept any donations. To help out, go to everyonewalk.com.

Clarkson, meanwhile, also has a website he is promoting in an effort to educate boys and men about testicular cancer. Go to http://clarksonpurpleribbon.weebly.com/ to get involved or buy a shirt that reads "Man up. Check 'em."

The walkathon will start approximately 30 minutes after Camas' first game of the season on Sept. 6.

Rule lost 140 pounds, mostly through his walking regimen, and started his walkathon in 2011. Some football players from Camas also are involved, hosting and promoting the event as part of their senior projects.

Drew Clarkson described his fear, how he lost sleep some nights just wondering about his future.

He talked about the intense pain, noting there were days when the medicine designed to save him also seemed to be destroying him.

And he reluctantly discussed an aspect of testicular cancer that can be embarrassing for any 17-year-old.

His five-month ordeal sounds like a nightmare.

Instead, Drew Clarkson calls it a blessing.

"I'm thankful for it," Clarkson said as he prepares for his senior season of football with the Camas Papermakers. "It's made me a better person, a happier one."

Clarkson remains a giant of a teenager, a 6-foot, 3-inch, 275-pound lineman. He is not yet as strong as he was before his four rounds of chemotherapy, but he will get there soon. He promises.

That dedication is one of the reasons Clarkson is one of the best linemen in the state, one of the most sought after by some of the biggest college programs in the country.

While Clarkson endured the one-two punch of surgery to remove the tumor in his right testicle and then chemotherapy, college coaches were keeping in touch, telling him that they still wanted him.

California was the first school to offer Clarkson a scholarship. The next day, Clarkson was in the middle of a chemo session when he received a text message from his high school coach, saying that Oregon State had made an offer.

Clarkson, feeling good and crappy at the same time, told the nurses the news.

The next day, the nurses wondered if their "star" patient had received any more offers.

Sure enough, Washington State was on board.

So there was Clarkson, sitting there with medicinal drugs running through his veins, fighting for his life, all while trying to contain his excitement for what lies ahead in his life.

"It took off from there. I didn't know how to react," Clarkson said, noting that he now has five offers from Pac-12 programs, with several other colleges showing interest. "It was definitely cool."

But first, he had to deal with his condition.

Make it through this summer, and a senior year of football awaits. Then there will be Signing Day in February. Graduation. And finally, off to play college football.

Just make it through this summer.

Clarkson has never been doom and gloom about his condition. Certainly, he was frightened when he first learned he might have cancer. But for the most part, he has been in competitive mode.

Beat this thing.

Get back to football.

"Throughout everything," Clarkson said, "my outlook has been positive. 'Alright, let's deal with it.' I accept it as life. Bad things happen. Getting down about it is not going to help."

His best advocate

Clarkson was his own best advocate. He knew something was wrong "down there" so he broached the subject to his mother.

"For a week, I was trying to convince myself that it was nothing," Clarkson said. "But then I knew I had to go check it out."

Interestingly, his doctor did say it was nothing serious, but Clarkson was not convinced. He asked his doctor to check again. The second examination led to an ultrasound and a visit with a specialist.

The tumor was so big it "had to come out, cancer or not," Clarkson was told.

One week later, still not knowing if it was cancer, Clarkson underwent surgery, removing the tumor and the testicle, replacing the testicle with a prosthetic. That was the week before spring break.

The family would later learn he had Stage 2 cancer.

"The scariest thing we've ever been through," Cheri Clarkson said. "It's hard to be a parent and not be able to help your kid. There's nothing you can do."

Matthew Clarkson, Drew's father, added: "It was a lot of shock and awe and tears as a parent. An icy cold grip on your stomach. Very frightening."

Even after it was determined cancer was present in the tumor, his doctor did not know if Drew would need chemotherapy after the surgery. Drew was advised to wait six weeks.

Once again, Clarkson took charge of his treatment. After being told that there would still be a 70-percent chance of needing chemo, and looking at the calendar, Clarkson had a demand.

"Let's do it right now," he recalled saying. "If I had (waited), I wouldn't be playing my senior year."

He had read about the effects of chemotherapy, but no amount of research can really prepare a person.

"It's intense. Four rounds. Each round was one week on, two weeks off. When you're on, it's Monday through Friday, five, six hours a day. You don't feel good at all," he said.

Yet, Clarkson the football player insisted on working out as much as he could, as long as he could. During his "on" weeks, he made it to the weight room on Mondays and Tuesdays after chemo. By Wednesday, he was just too fatigued. By the end of the week, he would recover, then get back to the weight room on his "off" weeks.

The cycle continued.

Inspiration for team

His Camas teammates marveled at his commitment.

"You can say it was an inspiration," linebacker Michael DiGenova said. "It was really cool to see, with everything happening to him, and he was still working so hard."

Anybody caught slacking in the weight room was reminded by a coach that there was a guy fighting cancer who was not making any excuses.

"I have seen kids find a way to get out of working out for much less," Camas coach Jon Eagle said. "Having a kid with what could be life-threatening cancer coming in to lift weights, that's all you need to know about that guy."

Still, Clarkson dealt with doubt.

Chemo affects every person differently. For Clarkson, there were days of excruciating knee pain. That's bad enough for anybody; worse for someone expecting to play college football, someone whose speed caught the eye of so many coaches.

There is a particular play on Clarkson's recruiting video that displays that speed. It shows Clarkson leading running back Nathan Beasley on a long run. Beasley never passes his lineman.

Yet, there were a couple of nights when Clarkson feared his speed was gone forever.

"It scared me. 'Oh my gosh, I'm not going to be able to walk,' " he said.

The pain was temporary, but that was difficult for Clarkson to grasp in the midst of the suffering.

Clarkson made it through the initial pain and concern, the appointments, the surgery, the diagnosis, and the chemotherapy. Looking back on it all, there was one other thing that made him the most uncomfortable.

It is recommended that testicular cancer patients bank their sperm in case they become infertile.

Yes, exactly what you think.

Matthew Clarkson drove his son to "the bank" five times.

"That was worse than chemo," Drew said, trying to hide his face from his parents, not quite sure he wanted to be discussing this subject. "When I was done, I didn't talk or look at my dad."

While it makes for a fun story now, that is one of the issues that young adults and teens face when suffering from a disease that affects a sensitive area.

Not backing down

Doctors gave Drew a lot of credit for not backing down after that first exam. It would have been easier, and certainly more comforting, short-term, to just accept that it was nothing to worry about. Long-term, it could have been fatal.

Early detection is best. Cancer, no matter where it is in the body, is never embarrassing.

"Don't ever wait if something is wrong," Clarkson said. "If you wait, all of a sudden, instead of dealing with Stage 2, you're dealing with Stage 4, and it's very serious."

Well, even Stage 2 is serious, but Clarkson said he used his sense of humor to fight it, as well. One of his nicknames now is Han Solo.

Long before cancer was a concern of his, Clarkson decided to grow out his hair in order to donate to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for children who have lost their hair due to medical battles. So before Clarkson went in for his own treatment, he had a cutting party at his house, donating 13 inches.

Today, that long hair is long gone, replaced by peach fuzz as his new hair springs to life. His final round of chemo was the last week of June.

Rebuilding strength

He used to be able to squat 440 pounds, bench press 340, and cling 320. Now, he is at 400, 315, and 290.

"The biggest thing for me is endurance," Clarkson said. "My muscle endurance went down the drain. It takes a toll on the body. It got a little depressing. I'm fighting to get my confidence back in my body."

He was told he has no signs of cancer in his system. There might be another surgery -- after football season -- to remove two lymph nodes, but that decision will have to wait.

It's time for Drew Clarkson to get on with his life, with football. He knows he will have to pick a college, but he will not rush that choice.

The sport helped him in his battle and, he said, the cancer helped him with football.

"Coaches want to know how you are going to react to adversity. Football is not easy," Clarkson said. "Most kids don't have to go through this."

Clarkson also is grateful to those around him. His friends. His brothers, Trevor and Gage. And, of course, his parents.

Drew acknowledged that he used to have an attitude problem at home.

Not anymore.

Drew said he and his father are "buddies" now, and he appreciates all the love and support from his mom and dad.

"It changed my whole outlook on life," Clarkson said.

Clarkson calls it the "C-word," but cancer is not really a bad word in his vocabulary. As difficult as the fight was, it was worth it, he said.

Not just to save his life, but to change it.