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Grappling with cancer


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Janie Boschma

On Nov. 17, senior Carl Bamlet will wrestle in the Augsburg Open in Minneapolis. It will be his 28th match as a heavyweight on the UW-Eau Claire squad and the first match of his third season.

Bamlet invested hours getting his body into wrestling shape, lifting weights two hours a day, five days a week. He said he had to because he made a decision three years ago that from then on, he was in control.

Lying in a hospital bed at the Mayo Clinic in 2004, Bamlet didn’t have control. He couldn’t control his stomach because, he said, he vomited 25 to 30 times a day. He couldn’t control the fact that his hair fell out and his fingernails became brittle. He couldn’t control the hard truth that there was a tumor the size of a golf ball taking up residence in the middle of his brain.

Bamlet said he decided he would never allow himself to be weak again.

“So I could get strong enough so that if this happens again, I will beat it,” he said.

Golden boy

Bamlet attended Hayfield High School, near Rochester, Minn., where he excelled in football and wrestling. During his senior year Concordia University-St. Paul (Minn.) offered him a scholarship to play Div. II football. He was ranked No. 4 in the state of Minnesota single A wrestling heavyweight division.

That’s when Bamlet’s life took a turn.

During his 2003 wrestling season, Bamlet tore his shoulder, causing him to miss a good portion of his matches. He said it was his dream to wrestle in the state tournament, so he ignored the injury and returned for the sectional tournament. Bamlet made a run in the tournament and found himself in the final match to go to State. However, earlier in the tournament, he tore a ligament in his thumb, this time on the opposite arm as his torn shoulder. He said he could do very little in that match and subsequently lost.

Bamlet had one more chance. He wrestled in the “true second-place” match for a state tournament bid against an opponent he had defeated easily earlier in the season. However, he said, his injuries again caused him to lose the match.

His dream of the state tournament faded.

The tear in his shoulder prompted Concordia to withdraw its scholarship offer, he said, so he came to Eau Claire instead to play football for its Div. III program.

Sidelined from football while recovering from shoulder surgery, fall semester was hard for Bamlet, he said.

Both his grandmothers had to go to the hospital, one with pneumonia and the other to have a pacemaker put in. His dad had an irregular heartbeat and his grandfather suffered a stroke.

His dog died and his brand new laptop that he bought for school broke.

His break from classes in winter didn’t make things better, he said. While back home, his girlfriend dumped him.

“He came from a high school where he was the golden boy . football, sports, pretty girlfriend,” Bamlet’s mother, Mary Bamlet, said. “Then he went to college and it was different.”

When Carl Bamlet looked back on that time, he said the events are almost unbelievable.

“People look at things and say, ‘How could it get any worse?'” he said. “My perspective is it can always get worse unless you’re dead.”

It gets worse

On March 4, 2004, Bamlet sat in class looking at the projection screen, just as he did any other day, he said. Suddenly, the words on the screen scrambled and something wasn’t right.

He finished class and headed to Health Services. As he made his way up the stairs, he said his eyes sunk into their sockets and started bouncing around as if he were having a seizure.

The staff at Health Services performed an eye test and sent him to a local optometrist for further examination.

The optometrist had an interesting reaction after examining Bamlet’s eyes.

“He just said, ‘oh crap,'” Bamlet said, and sent him to the Luther Midelfort Clinic, 1400 Bellinger St. for an MRI.

The MRI showed Bamlet had a brain tumor, which doctors later discovered in a biopsy to be pineal germinoma.

Around 3,200 people under the age of 20 are diagnosed with central nervous system tumors every year in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. Although it depends on the type and location of tumor, around 50 percent of those patients survive longer than five years.

Doctors later gave Bamlet a 75- to 90-percent chance of survival. However, the chances of permanent brain damage were much greater, Bamlet said.

Bamlet wasn’t thinking of those numbers as he made the long walk from Luther Midelfort to Upper Campus. He said his mind was racing, and as soon as he got to his dorm room, he called his parents to tell them the bad news. In the middle of a blizzard, his parents made the trip to Eau Claire the next day.

Long road to recovery

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester performed a biopsy on Bamlet and discovered the tumor was the size of a golf ball, surrounded by fluid making it the size of a softball.

Bamlet said they couldn’t perform surgery to remove the tumor because of its location in the center of the brain. He instead started chemotherapy on March 19.

During the three-and-a-half month chemo treatment, Bamlet said he vomited 25 to 30 times every day. At some points, he said, he could only dry heave and vomit his stomach bile. He lost his hair and his fingernails became brittle.

Bamlet said those were tough times, but he never gave up.

“If you’re feeling bad for yourself and moping around, you’re as good as dead,” he said.

It was also very tough on his parents.

“You would rather go through it yourself than see your son go though it,” Mary Bamlet said.

Bamlet followed the chemo with one month of radiation. He said radiation wasn’t as hard as the chemo. At that time, doctors told him he was going to recover.

“Once they said it was going to be better, it made me feel a lot better,” he said.

Bamlet’s parents visited him every day, but seldom did his friends make the trip to Mayo, he said.

“No one wants to come visit you when they think you’re basically going to die.”

The one visitor he did have was close childhood friend and current roommate Sam Rud, a student at Chippewa Valley Technical College.

“I don’t think anyone really wanted to see him like that,” Rud said. “They’re used to seeing the happy-go-lucky guy.”

Back to the mats

Bamlet returned to school in the fall after his radiation ended in August 2004. He said he realized he lost his desire to play football, and instead decided to get back into wrestling. Bamlet said he worked out religiously from August until the following wrestling season.

He didn’t want to wrestle his first year back because he said he didn’t want to make a “joke” of himself. His strength at that time was similar to what it had been in middle school. He said he could only bench press 160 pounds.

“He loved sports his whole life,” Mary Bamlet said. “He’s wrestled since he was in kindergarten . I never doubted (he would wrestle again).”

Rud agreed.

“He’s got more of a drive than anyone else,” he said.

Bamlet’s work ethic and increase in strength earned him a spot on Eau Claire’s wrestling team and he wrestled in 12 matches in the 2005-06 season.

Coach Don Parker said Bamlet told him about the tumor and his recover, but said Bamlet never told the rest of the team about his history because he never wanted them to feel bad for him. After time, he told some of them, but Parker said there are still some on the team who don’t know.

“I didn’t feel it was necessary to brag about it,” Bamlet said. “I never wanted any sympathy when I was going through this.”

Bamlet said doctors told him he could participate in sports as long as he never felt dizzy. If he did, he would have to stop wrestling.

Parker said Bamlet increased his strength and became more physical since he joined the team and sees Bamlet as an asset to his squad. His bench press increased from 160 pounds after the tumor to its current mark of 300 pounds.

“He’s got a good personality. The (team) likes him,” Parker said. “To overcome adversity like that says a lot about him.”

Mary Bamlet said people who haven’t seen Carl since he had the tumor are stunned he made such a recovery.

“A couple years later – to see him as big and strong as ever – I think people are surprised,” she said.

Lasting effects

Catching up for lost time, Bamlet said he is taking 19 credits this semester, which interferes with his wrestling schedule. Parker said Bamlet has to miss practice for classes sometimes and that is deterring him from competing as much as he could.

“He’s always in the library – like every night,” Rud said.

Bamlet needs the 19 credits so he can graduate in May and start graduate school at Northwestern College of Chiropractic in Minnesota. Bamlet said he wants to open his own health spa and chiropractic center someday.

Bamlet has been cancer-free for three years. However, he still deals with the painful reminders of the tumor, he said.

Because of the chemo, he still has ringing in his ears and his fingers sometimes go numb. The tumor killed cells around his eyes, he said, and he has blind spots in his vision.

And then there is always the chance that it could come back.

“Every time I go back for a check-up I get fear . I can’t stop thinking about possibly dealing with it again,” he said. “It would be very hard.”

Bamlet said those things are out of his hands. “You always have to find good things that you can control,” he said. “Like lifting and wrestling.”

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Grappling with cancer