Hansen: Don't call Doane student a cancer survivor — just call him Tyler - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:08 pm
Hansen: Don't call Doane student a cancer survivor — just call him Tyler

The greatest thing about the first lap is that Tyler barely notices it.

He is too busy making sure all the walkers, all the survivors, are staying together in a nice orderly pack. He is too busy making sure the candles — the lights meant to represent those who didn't survive — are properly lit.

He is too busy being the co-chairman of Doane College's Relay for Life, which annually raises more money per student than any other collegiate Relay for Life in the United States.

He is too busy making sure the first lap of this relay is fraught with symbolism for those who have beaten cancer and those who have been touched by it. He is too busy, or maybe not willing, to let it mean something to him.

“I honestly hardly remember the moment,” says Tyler Pooschke of Elkhorn about that first lap, and you can practically hear him shrug.

Tyler is 20, and he doesn't have time for moments. He doesn't have time today for gooey sentimentality about the months he spent in the hospital or the tube they inserted in his chest or the mask he had to wear when he went outside.

No, what Tyler is looking for is cold hard cash, the kind that can make a dent in this disease that four out of 10 of us — 40 percent — will be diagnosed with in our lifetimes.

Yes, he will tell you his story, but only if you promise him something. Don't call him a survivor. He's a little sick of it.

“I'm tired of being the kid who had cancer,” he says. “That's not who I am. I want to be the kid who is good at track. I want to be the kid who is good at math. That is who I am.”

Tyler could get on the track and run forever. Tyler could pound out math problem after math problem, late into the night.

Until an August day during his senior year at Elkhorn High School, when he first noticed he had to stop running because he couldn't breathe. Until that September of 2009, when he kept falling asleep while doing his homework.

Tyler would have gone to the doctor sooner, but his mom had just lost her job. They didn't have health insurance. So he waited, and waited, kept it to himself, as he got weaker and more exhausted.

When he finally went to the doctor, that doctor thought Tyler might have muscular dystrophy.

He landed in the emergency room that October, and doctors did tests and gave him the news. He remembers feeling strangely relieved. Lymphoma has to be better than muscular dystrophy, right?

Except Tyler's was stage 4, meaning that while he had put off a doctor's visit, it had spread through his blood and into his right thigh and left testicle. The doctors told him that most cancers, when they reach stage 4, cannot be stopped. But lymphoma can still be stopped, they said. Let's give it a shot.

Which meant chemo. Long, harsh rounds of chemo. It meant a winter when he stayed almost exclusively inside a hospital. It meant the permanent IV they placed in his chest, the one he had to cover with plastic when he showered. It meant his fat and muscle melting away as his 160-pound frame dropped to 148 ... 127 ... 112.

And really, what 20-year-old wants to remember the mask and gloves they made him wear when he went outside? Who wants to remember the awful silences when his high school buddies nervously stood by his bed?

No, the important thing, Tyler thinks, is that the spring brought promise. The chemo started working. The cancer diminished. And then it completely disappeared from his kidney, his testicle, his blood.

On June 8, 2010, the permanent IV was taken out of Tyler's chest. He asked to keep it as a souvenir.

“They wouldn't let me,” Tyler says.

Tyler missed much of his senior year but scraped together enough high school credits to graduate. There was never a doubt about what he would do next — he was going to Doane, where he had met and liked the track coach, who had offered him a small scholarship.

The tiny private school in Crete, Neb., as it happens, is known nationally for the success of its Relay for Life program, in which participants jog and walk all night to raise money for cancer research.

Tyler served on a committee as a freshman. Then he chaired a committee as a sophomore. This year, as a junior, he co-chaired the entire event, which culminated with the all-night relay April 12 and into the morning of April 13.

You do not have time to revel in the moment, not when you are worried about the three bands, including one from Denver, that are booked to play. Not when you have to coordinate the music with the Miss Relay Pageant, during which Doane's male students don wigs and glittery dresses and strut their stuff.

Not when you raise $58,000, which is what Doane has already raised for cancer research this year. The school plans to get to $75,000, or beyond, by the time the students finish finals.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

So he doesn't revel in the moment, because the truth is, Tyler doesn't want to.

“It was eight months of treatment. It was awful, but it wasn't that awful. I hear people talk about survivors this, survivors that. ... It's kind of surreal. I didn't have it that bad. A lot of people had it a lot worse.”

So Tyler walked through that recent Friday and into Saturday morning with the hundreds of other students and professors and community members who pulled an all-nighter to raise money for Relay for Life.

The truth is, Tyler has already had his best lap on this same indoor track.

The best lap, the one Tyler wants to remember, came during his freshman year in a tiny little Doane track meet that only two other teams showed for.

Tyler had worked to regain weight, worked to rebuild his atrophied legs. He could again run all day, and then he could stay up late solving math problems, and he felt almost as if the lymphoma never happened.

Bang! The gun for the open 200 meters went off.

Tyler shot from the blocks. He sprinted, just like the old days.

He finished last, he thinks. It didn't matter. That day, Tyler Pooschke felt happier than the winner.

“It was great,” Tyler says. “It was so awesome just to be able to run.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com

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Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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