Matt Brauckman, 13, of Carroll, can’t play his favorite sports, such as bowling, football and soccer, after he was diagnosed with cancer this spring.
Matt Brauckman, 13, of Carroll, can’t play his favorite sports, such as bowling, football and soccer, after he was diagnosed with cancer this spring.
May 17, 2013

It started in mid-January, when Matt Brauckman couldn't breathe.

His heart hurt.

He couldn't sleep.

Something was wrong.

The 13-year-old Carroll boy went to St. Anthony Regional Hospital, where doctors used X-rays to see his lungs. They were clear. Nothing wrong was obvious.

Maybe it was a bruised rib from snowboarding with friends, they thought.

The pain faded for two months but came back. Matt lay down to sleep on a March night but couldn't catch his breath. His heart hurt again.

He went back to the hospital, and this time there was a dark spot on his lungs.

The doctors told his mom Karen not to worry. Maybe it was scar tissue, or even just a shadow.

Matt went back for a more precise scan a week later that was supposed to help doctors identify the shadowy spot.

Matt and his mom went home to wait for the results. Karen told the helper at her at-home day care to go home. She shouldn't need her anymore that day. But it was only an hour later when Karen had to call her helper back to the day care. She'd already received a phone call from the hospital and she needed to go back.

"They said you have to come up here right now," Karen said. "I said, 'Right now?' She said you need to come right now."

The dark spot wasn't just a shadow. It appeared to be a tumor.

The hospital transferred Matt's care to the Children's Hospital and Medical Center in Omaha, Neb.

Matt and Karen went home as the hospital scheduled their appointment at Children's. They were expecting to have a day or two to get ready. But then there was another call.

"She calls me back and says you need to go now," Karen said. "There's a room waiting for you."

Life on hold

Matt Brauckman should be bowling and playing soccer with friends.

The shaggy-blond-haired boy bowled a personal best of 248 this year and was supposed to compete in the state tournament in March.

He was supposed to run and kick at the first day of soccer practice.

He was supposed to walk the halls of Carroll Middle School for the rest of his seventh-grade year.

He should be doing what he loves - watching figure-8 races with his brothers.

But most of those plans changed after a week of tests at Children's Hospital. He had a CT scan in late March that gave the doctors a better look at the dark spot. They found that the boy has a tumor floating inside his chest. It wraps around his heart and pushes against his lungs.

"It's massive," Karen said. "I almost fell over. I was like are you kidding me? This is in my child?"

Doctors also found that one of his lymph nodes in his neck was swollen and likely cancerous. They wanted to cut it out.

Matt already had a hard time breathing while lying down, so forcing him to sleep with anesthesia for surgery was too great a risk. A surgeon decided to numb the area near the lymph node and keep Matt awake for the procedure.

Tell us if it hurts too much, they told Matt.

The surgeon cut into his neck and pulled out a node the width of a garden hose. Another node showed signs of cancer, but it remains for now.

Then, more tests. Doctors examined his bone marrow and blood to make sure the cancer hadn't spread.

On Easter Sunday, just four days later, Karen got a call from Children's. As the doctors suspected, Matt had Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The disease had progressed to a stage 2. That meant the cancer had spread to two lymph nodes. It hadn't spread to his bones. It wasn't in his blood.

"We knew it was going to be cancer," Karen said. "We didn't know what kind."

But there was good news. The cancer was treatable. Children like Matt have a 95 percent chance of survival.

The way forward

Matt can't go to school. He gets sick too easy.

His lymph nodes play a key role in fending off disease. They have a watery fluid that carries oxygen and nutrients to cells and have white blood cells that fight germs.

Matt's white-blood-cell count has dropped to less than a tenth of normal. He must go to the hospital if his body temperature rises to 100.4 degrees.

So Matt stays home and watches TV and chips away at the stack of homework on his kitchen counter. It's hard for him to answer questions about school lessons he's missed in the past two months.

"He gets frustrated easily right now," Karen said.

Wilma Orlano, a middle school teacher, has started helping Matt with homework every Friday.

But the fight against Matt's cancer has just begun, and the Brauckmans have already racked up nearly $60,000 in medical bills. Matt's first round of chemotherapy alone cost $16,000.

Earlier this month, Matt's absolute neutrophile count, which are a type of white blood cells, were down to nearly zero. It's usually between 500 and 1,500.

He had almost no ability to fight off infection.

Problems like this will keep adding to the hospital bills.

And the bills came at a bad time. Matt doesn't have insurance. He and his brother Seth were enrolled in a taxpayer-paid Iowa insurance program for children, but Karen, who runs an in-home day care, and her husband Doug, who is a self-employed truck driver, made too much money last year to qualify.

Karen said it's happened before, but usually they wait a year and are eligible for the program again.

Their only insurance option, through Doug's work, would have cost them more than $800 per month.

In order to help with the family's expenses, several fundraising efforts have been set up around town.

For now, the Brauckmans are thankful. It could be worse.

Although Matt just wants to be a regular teenager and carry on with his school activities, Karen encourages him to look on the bright side.

"Be happy you're here and you have something that can be fixed, and there is always next year," Karen tells him.

Maybe next year Matt won't have to battle the little dark spot.

Side Bars

Hodgkin's Lymphoma

The Mayo Clinic, based in Rochester, Minn., describes Hodgkin's lymphoma as a cancer of the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system controls your immune systems. As Hodgkin's progresses it lessens your body's ability to fight infection.

Karen said the lymphoma is similar to AIDS in how it attacks an immune system.

"Just like a person with AIDS, the person doesn't die from the disease, they die from the infection they get," Karen said.