Community comes to aid of Brandon youngster with cancer

Jill Meier, Journal editor
Kayla Wilmarth photo
Members of the combined (Thorsland) Huml family are, from left, row one: Spencer Thorsland, 9, Sawyer and Ranger Thorsland, both 6; middle: David and Lori Huml, their dog, Rocky; back row: Parker and Carter Thorsland, both 14, and Jaiden Huml, 13.   
“The big fancy word is rhabdomyosarcoma. Stage 3. It’ll be a long road.”

Lori Huml posted these recent comments on her Facebook page to let friends and family know of her 9-year-old son, Spencer Thorsland’s diagnosis.

Then she followed up with, “Obviously, everything shifts and adjusts as we go. Chemo alone is 18 weeks, but we’re home! Happy dance. Spence is doing really great. He’s in great spirits. Happy. Smiling. He knows he has cancer.”

It was in July that Spencer – who loves gaming with his best buddy, Spencer Hazelton – was experiencing pain in his abdomen. Following X-rays, physicians chalked it up to constipation. 

“The tumor,” Lori Huml tells, “was pushing his colon together, so it couldn’t be seen on the X-ray.”

Blood and urine tests also revealed nothing, so they were sent home with orders to begin Miralax.

“Which we did,” Huml said. “It helped and he started to feel better.”

Two weeks later, after stopping the Miralax, Spencer, who shares time with his father, Cory, in Minnesota, was complaining on stomach issues once again. Cory took him to the ER, where X-rays were repeated.

And once again, doctors diagnosed him as having constipation, suggesting Miralax and a suppository.

After reading the report on Sanford’s My Chart, that’s when Lori detected things weren’t adding up.

“The Sanford ER doctor wrote, ‘Still constipated, do this.’ Then a day later, a notification came from the lab side of it, where the radiologist took a look at the X-ray and it said, ‘minimal constipation.’ They’re not matching up,” Huml said.

Upon returning to Brandon the following were and directed to continue with the Miralax, although the youngster had a stool, Huml decided to stop giving Spencer the Miralax.

Then came the night before the first day of school, and once again, the Robert Bennis Elementary fourth-grader was complaining of stomach pain.

Huml chalked the discomfort up to first-day nerves. 

“He pushed through the night and went to his first day of fourth grade at Robert Bennis Elementary – excited, happy, no pain, nothing. He got home and by supper time, he didn’t want to eat, he said he felt full,” she recalled.

Following an uncomfortable night, Huml was perplexed, and made the decision to return to the doctor.

“We had happened to see the doctor who had done his first X-ray at the end of July,” Huml said, offering a synopsis of what had unfolded during his visit to the ER while with his father.

The doctor agreed with Huml that Spencer’s recurring pain was odd, so ordered another blood test and urine sample, the latter which came back with blood in it.

“That was the first sign that something more is going on,” Huml said.

Although Spencer’s platelet count was high, the doctor still could not see the tumor on the X-ray, which warranted a daylong visit to the ER, where an ultrasound was ordered.

Once again, doctors could not identify what they were seeing, so a CT scan followed, which indicated “something was there,” Huml said.

The surgeon at Sanford Children’s Hospital told them they needed to go in to explore what they were seeing as soon as possible.

“I was thinking something just needs ‘to come out’ and then they did the surgery a week ago Friday (Aug. 21) and were able to biopsy it,” Huml said. “They’ve been wonderful, fantastic at the Sanford Castle. They said they had no other pediatric surgeries and would take their time and were going to do their best to take it all out and then test it to see what it is. But they couldn’t remove it all because of how deep it is. The surgeon described it being like a mushroom, like a stem and the stem being very deep.”

Eventually, surgeons determined the mass as rhabdomyosaroma, a rare type of sarcoma that affects more children than adults. It develops in the skeletal or voluntary muscles of the body and is most commonly found in the head and neck but it also occurs in the abdomen.

“It started in a muscle that is close to Spencer’s back and it’s really deep in there,” Huml explains. “The top of the ‘mushroom’ is on the abdomen area, which is attached to different things in there, including his colon.”

Because of the tumor’s position, surgeons had the option to remove Spencer’s colon, but opted not to do so which would require him to wear a colostomy bag for the rest of his life.

“He said they struggled to make their decision on what they should do. They knew that they couldn’t get all of the stem in that moment, so they left what would’ve been a life-changing thing for him in that moment,” Huml said. “Everything they cut out, they biopsied a little piece of it and knew it was malignant but didn’t know what to call it, what kind of cancer we are dealing with.” 

The family then had to wait for pathology to determine what type of cancer the tumor is.

From there, physicians began to orchestrate a treatment plan that included a PET scan and bone marrow check on Aug. 27 and a port will be placed underneath his skin this Friday, which he will receive chemotherapy through.

Spencer will remain at the Sanford Castle for two weeks following the procedure, after which he’ll receive his first cycle of chemo. These treatments will continue every two weeks after that – four in all total – and will extend nine to 11 weeks.

“Then they will scan everything again, then prep for a surgery to go in to see if the tumor has gotten smaller and get the pieces that were left behind,” Huml said.

Another round of chemo and radiation to pinpoint any little pieces that may still be there, will follow.

Huml said she has found herself wondering how this rare type of cancer showed up in her son.

 “You ask all the questions, ‘Where did this come from? Did we miss something?’ And the doctors are just like, ‘In kids, you don’t miss cancer. It just starts and goes.’ But something within his DNA shifted and decided to do these cancer cells and if he was exposed to something, they’ll never know.”

Huml said Spencer is handling it all well, except for the IVs.

We went in yesterday and he knew he was having testing but he didn’t understand he was going to get another IV,” she said. “He does not like the IVs. He doesn’t like the bump. I think it’s more the visual of it.”

That was the first time she said that she saw fear in his face.

“Up to yesterday, I think he thought it was fun getting all these little presents, and then yesterday it was more of the reality, like ‘Oh, I’m not going back to school’ and I’m still home and I’m still not feeling well,” she said.

Despite all he’s endured so far, the youngster remains strong in his faith.

“He’s got a very strong heart and a strong faith. He often says, ‘God says it’s going to be OK’ or the different things he’ll say in his little prayers at night, like ‘Make me strong,’” she tells.

The family also believes he’s finding strength from the plethora of “prayer warriors.”

“I think he can feel that some people are praying for him, so we take it one step at a time and not try to think so far into the future,” she said, which is difficult for her “type A” personality.

Although Spencer’s cancer journey has largely just begun, doctors say his prognosis is positive.

“They’re calling it aggressive but it is treatable. I have some family in the medical field who are researching it … but regardless, we’re going to do what we have to do, and if I get percentages or whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s God’s plan and we’ll just take it one step at a time to tackle it regardless if I know the stats or I don’t,” Huml said.

An outpour of community support is helping the family through this emotional time. The Hazelton family (See page 6 story) stepped up to sell thousands and thousands of ears of sweet corn on Spencer’s behalf, and Erica Hazleton has created a “Spencer Universe” bracelet that can be purchased at Brandon Ace or Pizza Ranch. A

Another fourth-grade mom at RBE who makes t-shirt as her career has volunteered to make t-shirts for all the fourth graders and the company she works for is donating all the shirts and printing.

“It just is amazing outreach, support and the prayers, all the people that are praying and sending sweet little messages. It’s so awesome,” she said.

Meals for the family continue to show up nightly. “It just keeps coming, it’s been fantastic,” she said.

The meal chain was arranged by members from their church family, Rachael and Brian Moss, at Brandon Valley Assembly of God.

“Every day at 5:30, the doorbell rings, and here’s supper,” she said.

And there are others who’ve come forward to help, like the Corson Pink Ladies and the Ed Polzine Wild Game Feed Fund, who gave a $1,500 donation to the family.

The kindness is humbling, Huml said.

“We just feel like we’re this little family in this town doing our work and doing our thing, but to have this many people this quickly embrace and come around you – some people I don’t even know on the Caring Bridge site – or who have sent messages or connected us, even the church back in Minnesota I was a member of, is so humbling,” she said. “We just want to say thank you to everybody for everything and for the prayer support – that’s huge. Some people think they aren’t doing anything, but the prayer support is huge. Please continue the prayers and just know how appreciative we are for everything that has already done for us. It’s just incredible.”


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