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The fight of his life

Off the mat, Banks wrestler Mitchell Engeseth grapples with cancer
by: Chase Allgood, Mitchell Engeseth, a junior at Banks High School, stands next to a batting cage he helped build with his father, Jack, at the family’s home in Verboort. Engseth, who wrestled and played baseball for Banks, was diagnosed last month with Burkitt’s Lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.

FEBRUARY 10, 2007
4:35 P.M.

Mitchell Engeseth rips off his wrestling headgear and throws it to the mat. Frustrated and angry, he gives the discarded headgear a half-hearted kick and sulks toward the locker room.

Mitchell, a junior on the Banks wrestling team, just lost a 4-3 decision to Yamhill-Carlton's Steven Westerlund in the 140-pound consolation match at the Cowapa League district tournament.

Infuriated by Westerlund's stalling near the end of the match, Mitchell fumes on the sideline for a moment, then quietly slips out of the Tillamook High School gym.

After months of hard work and sacrifice, he's finished one point shy of qualifying for the 4A state wrestling tournament.

One point.

'It was devastating,' Mitchell says. 'I know he was stalling, I just couldn't get that last call.'

It is the worst day of his life.

FEBRUARY 27, 2007
9:22 A.M.

For weeks, Mitchell has been ignoring a steady pain in his lower left abdomen. In January, doctors had told him it was probably a muscle pull from the strain of wrestling every day, but now the season is over and the pain is still there.

On Tuesday morning, Mitchell returns to the doctor for a second examination.

On Wednesday morning, he is brought in for a CT scan. There is a shadow. A mass. That afternoon it is biopsied.

On Friday, he sits quietly in the back seat of his parents' car while they try to explain to him that he has been diagnosed with Burkitt's Lymphoma. Mitchell is numb, but a few of the words sink in: cancer, rare, aggressive.

The district tournament, the loss to Westerlund, the thrown headgear - it is all forgotten in an instant.

This is the worst day of his life.

'I didn't know what to think,' he says. 'I didn't suspect anything. I just waited outside [the high school] for my mom and dad to pick me up.

'I found out in the car on the way to the hospital. I was in shock.'

His parents are in shock, too. How do you tell a 17-year-old that he has cancer?

'We got the phone call on Friday at about noon,' says his mother, Laurie. 'Mitchell was in school, so we were debating how to tell him - should we pull him out of school or just wait until he got home?'

Sensing that she may break down while recounting the day's events, her husband, Jack, finishes the story.

'Then the phone rang and it was the doctors from Doernbecher [Children's Hospital],' Jack says. 'They told us, 'Get him over here now. He has a fast-growing lymphoma and we need to start treatment right away.''

The pain in Mitchell's abdomen is a large, cancerous mass, measuring 16 centimeters by 9 centimeters - about the size of a small cantaloupe.

On Sunday, Mitchell has a port inserted into his chest for chemotherapy.

On Tuesday, he receives his first treatment.

MARCH 23, 2007
2:28 P.M.

Mitchell sits in the bleachers of the Banks High School gym with an embarrassed smile. As the crowd cheers, he reluctantly emerges from the stands and grabs a pair of clippers. Mitchell is about to give instructional assistant Debbie Mott a buzzcut.

What began as a small fund-raising event to benefit Mitchell and his family has morphed into something totally unexpected.

Banks wrestling coaches Jacob Pence and Gabe Pagano have organized the 'Buzzcut Benefit,' an assembly designed to solicit donations from students, teachers and community members. For $5, an Engeseth family member will shave your head - a showing of solidarity for Mitchell, who admits he is petrified of losing his hair to the chemotherapy.

Originally, the benefit was scheduled for Wednesday. Organizers acknowledged that they expected it to last perhaps 15 minutes, giving out maybe a dozen buzzcuts.

Now the event has been moved to Friday and the bleachers are filled to capacity. More than 800 people have turned out in support of Mitchell and his battle with cancer. The small town of Banks has rallied around one of its own.

'The turnout was just incredible,' Jack says. 'We were floored by how many people came out.'

When the dust settles, the Buzzcut Benefit raises $6,600 for Mitchell and his parents, and the town of 1,400 is overrun with freshly shaved heads - 110 to be exact. Among them is Mott, Mitchell's tutor, whose new hairdo raises more than $1,000 for the family.

MARCH 23, 2007
10:06 P.M.

In six hours, Mitchell goes from the highest high to the lowest low. After the assembly he feels weak, tired. Jack and Laurie rush him to the emergency department at OHSU.

Mitchell has a viral infection, brought on by his hectic day and his low white blood cell level from the chemo.

Just a few hours ago he was smiling and having a great time at the Buzzcut Benefit. Now he is lying on a hospital bed, an IV jammed in his arm and antibiotics coursing through his bloodstream.

This is what life is like on the cancer rollercoaster.

'That was a pretty big swing,' Jack says. 'To go from euphoria to a crash - it was an interesting weekend, to say the least.'

But Mitchell is resilient. He fights off the infection and by Monday he is back on his feet.

'He has good days and bad days,' Laurie says. 'But after the antibiotics, it was all we could do to keep him down. He was up and bouncing around like nothing ever happened.'

MARCH 29, 2007
3:22 P.M.

Mitchell sits in his living room, a Banks baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, his already gaunt frame even thinner from the chemo. He is nearly swallowed by an oversized chair. Jack and Laurie sit nearby, recounting the trials and tribulations of the last month.

The family is upbeat, positive. Doctors have told them that treatment for Burkitt's Lymphoma has an 85 percent success rate. Fast-growing cancers such as Burkitt's respond well to chemotherapy because the drugs target cells that divide quickly.

There is plenty of reason for optimism.

Mitchell, Jack and Laurie all wear smiles and laugh freely at funny stories from their ordeal. Like how Mitchell got to shave Debbie Mott's head at the assembly two weeks ago, or how his good friend Johnny Janisko had to part with his beloved mop of brown hair when the baseball team decided on a collective head-shaving to support their former teammate.

'It was cool to see the baseball team get their heads shaved,' Mitchell says. 'Johnny loves his hair, so I got a good laugh out of that.'

Still, there are times when emotions pull at them. Beneath their smiles, Jack and Laurie have questions - most notably, why a previously happy and healthy 17-year-old has to fight for his life against cancer.

'If you smoke cigarettes your whole life, you're going to get lung cancer. If you eat at McDonald's every day, you're going to get colon cancer,' Jack says. 'But kids shouldn't get cancer.'

For his part, Mitchell doesn't feel sorry for himself. At least outwardly, he will never ask, 'Why me?'

'I'm just going with the flow, trying to keep a positive attitude,' he says.

Mitchell is setting his sights on next wrestling season. Nothing would make him happier than getting healthy and getting back on the mat.

Except maybe a rematch with Westerlund.

'Right now I just want to get back to wrestling,' Mitchell says. 'It would be nice to get another shot at him, maybe make it to state.'

FEBRUARY 9, 2008
6:05 P.M.

Mitchell Engeseth rips off his wrestling headgear and throws it to the mat. Jubilant, he hugs his mother and father and celebrates two victories - one on the wrestling mat and one off it.

Mitchell has beaten his rival and he's headed to state. But he has also beaten cancer.

And that would be the best day of his life.