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Battle for his life: Salem senior beats cancer, returns to gridiron

Photo by Nate McCullough

Photo by Nate McCullough

When doctors diagnosed Cole Haynie with cancer, the teenager approached the situation as if he were playing in a football game. Four chemotherapy cycles became the four quarters of the game.

During the first three-week cycle, Haynie sat back and evaluated the good and the bad and got used to living with the drug. The second cycle he tested his energy level, going to church or watching football practice.

By cycles three and four, he had formed a strategy to win.

"(I thought), 'I know my opponent is bigger and faster than me, but I'm going to beat it,'" said Haynie, a tight end for the Salem High School football team.

A year later, Haynie is cancer-free and back on the football field.

"It strengthened me a lot," said Haynie, an 18-year-old senior at Salem High School. "In a sense, it kind of helped me find myself because I was put to the test. I always wondered how I would approach something like that and I'm proud of how I approached it."

Doctors discovered Haynie's cancer during a routine physical for football in July 2009. Prior to the exam, Haynie had some warning signs, but doctors treated them as separate problems.

In spring 2009, severe itching led Haynie to scratch his legs so much that he developed open sores. Dermatologists diagnosed it as a hair follicle problem, but in retrospect Haynie said his legs itched due to toxins building up from the cancer.

The 6-foot-4 young man had also lost 60 pounds over a period of several months, dropping from 240 to 180 in spring 2009. Haynie and his family chalked the weight loss up to heavy workouts in preparation for football season.

Haynie also had trouble breathing.

After the doctor felt a lump on Haynie's neck during a July 29 exam, he sent him immediately for a biopsy on July 31. The result -- Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage two.

The news took everyone by surprise, said Julie Jones, Haynie's mother.

"Everything was going through my mind. What in the world are we doing to do?" Jones said.

Haynie said he didn't panic.

"When they told me I was diagnosed with cancer, everyone around me cried. I refused to cry. Feeling sorry for myself won't help anything," Haynie said.

Haynie received chemotherapy and radiation at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Aflac Cancer Center. On the second to the last day of chemotherapy, Haynie told his mother, who took him to all of treatments, that he couldn't do it anymore.

She found a nurse who talked him through it and they completed the cycle.

"That was a heartbreaking day for me," Jones said.

Haynie said seeing other children at the hospital being treated for cancer proved difficult. He remembers a boy with his legs amputated and another child crying in a post-surgery room. The scenes weighed heavy on Haynie, but also made him ease off on asking, "Why me?"

Haynie found solace talking to the other children about their disease. He continues to visit families in the hospital's cancer center.

"It's a huge conversation-starter when you tell someone you have cancer," said Haynie, who also served as an inspirational speaker at the 2010 Rockdale Relay for Life cancer research fundraiser.

Haynie attended school at Salem during treatments, missing only those days he had chemotherapy. He drew inspiration from a classmate who also had cancer and former Salem coach and teacher Jeff Blount, who died from cancer in 2008.

"(I thought) I'm going to do it just like Coach Blount. He didn't go into it with any fear. He kept his head up the whole time," Haynie said.

In January, scans revealed no cancer in Haynie's body.

"I was extremely happy. I was on top of the world," he said.

Haynie is considered in remission for the next year and a half, a time when the chances are highest that the cancer will recur. Meanwhile, he's playing football, completing his senior year, working and preparing to enter the Marines.

"I feel great. I feel wonderful. I get up every morning and I try to make the best of every day," Haynie said.