Chris Siebenaler's voice wavers whenever he recalls the events of Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. That night, Chris returned home from work to his family's home in Sugar Land. His wife, Terry, and son, Dylan, a sophomore on the Texas A&M men's golf team, were also there. In many ways, that night resembled thousands of others that the Siebenalers experienced over the years.
A&M's spring semester had yet to begin, so Dylan was in town for a few weeks to visit family and friends. An excellent student who had recently started taking pre-med coursework in college, Dylan planned to use part of the break to shadow a few doctors at Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital, where his father works as chief executive officer.
The week was designed to give Dylan an insider's view of life as a doctor, and he anxiously observed each interaction, diagnosis and question.
What his parents didn't know was that a particular conversation Dylan heard that week between a doctor and patient had prompted him to quickly schedule a visit to his general practitioner. The diagnosis he received immediately following that appointment was jarring.
And now, Dylan was about to relay the news to his parents.
"I remember it vividly," recalled Chris Siebenaler recently from his office in Sugar Land, located about 20 miles southwest of Houston. "We had no idea what was going on."
As the family gathered in the kitchen that evening, Dylan made his announcement.
He said he had noticed a lump on his left testicle a few months before. There were no symptoms or pain associated with it, but he had decided to have it examined after observing a doctor and patient discuss a similar situation.
Dylan's primary care doctor was immediately concerned after an initial evaluation and ran some tests.
The preliminary suspicion was terrifying: cancer.
The news for Chris and Terry was at first incomprehensible. The couple's only child, who had previously owned a flawless health record, was delivering news for which no parent can prepare.
"I remember my wife and I looking at each other and asking him, 'What do you mean?'" said Chris. "It was a mix of numb disbelief and wondering why this was happening to our son. You go through that thought process of, here you have a good kid who is hard working and a great person, and something like this happens to him. We asked ourselves how this was fair. You read about this happening to other people, and then suddenly, it happens to you. It immediately felt like a bad dream, except it was very real."
Time may have stood still that night in the Siebenalers' kitchen, but the clock was moving quickly in Dylan's head.
Doctors had asked him to return the following day for a chest x-ray and CT scan. Less than 24 hours later--not even 48 hours since Dylan first visited his doctor--he was undergoing surgery to remove the tumor.
The spring semester has been a challenging one for Dylan Siebenaler, but his optimistic approach has allowed him to endure 63 days of chemotherapy and still complete 12 hours of coursework at Texas A&M.
Tests showed everyone's worst fear was accurate. Dylan had nonseminoma testicular cancer.
In barely two days, he had gone from being a happy-go-lucky college student preparing for the spring semester to someone staring down the barrel of a devastating diagnosis.
"I still remember getting a call while I was walking out of the doctor's office that first day," Dylan said. "I was expecting her to say the results had come back negative, but then she started the conversation by saying, 'Do you have a minute?' Whenever a conversation starts like that, you know it might be a little more serious than you originally thought.
"I was shocked. I never expected that I would be the one getting that phone call, especially as a healthy 19-year-old. Here I was getting ready to head back to College Station in a week, and all of that went on hold right away."
Specialists later determined his cancer was stage 2, which means the cancer had spread to a lymph node in his abdomen. Doctors recommended a 63-day plan for chemotherapy treatment, called "BEP chemotherapy." Specifically, doctors suggested three, 21-day cycles of chemo, which included the drugs bleomycin, etoposide and cisplatin. The good news, according to his treatment team, was that this particular cancer--if it was detected early like Siebenaler's--had a 95 percent cure rate.
It was good news, but it didn't make the upcoming weeks any easier. Doctors first installed a port in the upper portion of his chest to provide an opening with which to inject the drugs. Once that was done, Siebenaler began chemotherapy.
It was a grueling process. Each cycle began with five full days where Siebenaler would spend up to seven hours at Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital. He would return on days eight and 15 for another three hours of chemo treatments.
"I was scared. For the first time in my life I felt like things were out of my control. I have always been a big believer that I'm in control of my destiny, that hard work equals success. But this felt so out of my hands."
For Terry Siebenaler, watching her son endure the side effects of chemotherapy was a nightmare. She attended every chemo session with Dylan, rarely leaving his side on days when he went to the hospital for treatment.
The nausea and fatigue caused by the medicine were overwhelming, but it was during this time that Dylan's resolve became apparent. Even though chemotherapy would continue throughout most of the spring semester, Siebenaler remained enrolled at A&M and eventually finished 12 hours of classes.
"It was very difficult to watch him go through that," Terry said. "There are no words that can describe how helpless I felt. He stayed very positive, and the way he handled everything was amazing. He always told everyone that he was doing great."
That was certainly easier said than done.
Dylan admits it was his friends, family and mentors who helped push him through the most difficult times, and his teammates and coaches back in College Station played a big role in that. He received countless calls, texts and visits from Aggieland, something he later said helped him survive the uncomfortable side effects of chemotherapy.
The nausea, fatigue and inability to focus were at times overwhelming, but just when he would really begin to struggle, a teammate, friend or chaplain would fire off a text message of encouragement and well wishes.
For a young man with no natural brothers or sisters, having an extended family he could rely on was a wonderful boon to his healing process.
Siebenaler's teammates on the Aggie golf team frequently traveled to Sugar Land to visit and encourage their ailing friend. On several occasions, when Siebenaler was feeling up to it, they would even give him a ride to College Station so he could attempt to regain a sense of normalcy before the next round of chemotherapy was set to begin.
"These guys really are my family," said Siebelaner. "We really look out for each other, and I think that's something special we have here on this team. Not once did I ever feel like I was away from the team. I know it wasn't easy for them, but they really did put me before themselves, and that's something I'll never forget."
Men's golf coach J.T. Higgins was not surprised by the way his players rallied around their teammate, or by the determined way Siebenaler approached his disease and treatment.
"He's such a dedicated young man," Higgins said. "He works hard at everything he does and commits to everything, whether it's a workout plan, a practice schedule or his academics. When you really look at it, Dylan is a fantastic teammate. The other guys on the team knew he would have been there for them if they were going through something like that. He has been so great with those guys, that it was really a case of him getting what he would give to them."
The Aggie golfers were not shy about showing their support.
The team surprised Siebenaler by shaving their heads in between rounds of the Aggie Invitational at Traditions Club in April.
Siebenaler's teammates on the A&M golf team issued a show of support by shaving their heads during the Aggie Invitational tournament. (Siebenaler is pictured fifth from the left.)
One teammate, Charlie Benell, had green wristbands made, printed with the phrase "Do It For Dylan," which he passed out to many of Texas A&M's student-athletes and staffers. The wristband served a couple different purposes. For the Aggie golfers, it was a reminder during rounds that there were bigger things to worry about than golf shots. For Siebenaler, it served as a reminder of how many people were supporting him.
"I still remember coming back to campus after being away for a couple weeks and going to a dinner at the R.C. Slocum Nutrition Center," Siebenaler said. "I remember looking around and being amazed at how many athletes were wearing the wristbands. It was overwhelming because it showed how many people were there for me. It really hit me that I am so blessed to have such great support here."
For Siebenaler's parents, the way the Aggie family embraced their son was reinforcement of a feeling they had while Dylan was going through recruiting: A&M is a special place.
Despite having no family ties to Texas A&M, Chris Siebenaler said he and his wife quietly hoped their son would wind up in College Station, despite recruiting interest from other universities like Auburn, Northwestern and Oklahoma.
"I have worked with so many Aggies over the years that I have noticed the sense of family and sense of belonging," said Chris. "The entire value structure is huge for us...and I cannot think of how a university could have supported him more through this process. We were blown away. Everybody from the advisors to the professors and coaches were tremendously supportive. My wife and I are so grateful for how he was treated through this process. It didn't feel forced. It just felt like that's how they do things at A&M."
With an extraordinary support system in place, Siebenaler not only completed the spring semester, but he also managed to earn the golf team's academic achievement award for 2014-15.
Finishing The Fight
Dylan Siebenaler was able to "ring the bell" at Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital after completing his chemotherapy treatment and receiving news that he is cancer free.
And after 63 physically-draining, mentally-exhausting and resolve-testing days of treatment, Siebenaler completed chemotherapy in April and was given a clean bill of health from his doctors. He is officially cancer-free, and while he will have intermittent blood exams and body scans for the next five years, Siebenaler has been told the chance of cancer returning is slim. He is excited to return to physical activity and golf, with hopes of qualifying to play in a college golf tournament for the first time when the fall semester begins.
His positive prognosis was met with a sigh of relief and hugs of joy from his family and friends. It also changed the perspective of many in the Siebenaler family.
"It was the happiest moment of my life," said Terry. "To hear he was cancer-free and that this was behind us was something that couldn't come soon enough.
"We have learned a lot through this. I have learned more about the importance of family and friends. Having that support when you are going through something like this is huge. I'm more conscious of providing that support when I see someone in need. I know that played a huge role in how everything turned out, and it's something I know he will pay forward."
One way Dylan wants to pay it forward is by serving as a reminder to other men that testicular cancer is a real threat. Studies show that it is the most common form of cancer in men between the ages of 15-30. According to the American Cancer Society, however, the disease can be treated and eliminated if it is caught in its early stages.
Siebenaler said he does not want others to do what he did and not see a doctor in a timely manner after discovering an abnormality. Like many, he initially assumed it would go away, or that it was not cause for concern. Siebenaler estimates he noticed the lump roughly six months before he eventually sought a medical opinion.
Siebenaler thinks often about what might have happened if he had not been observing that certain doctor on that particular day.
"I consider myself extremely lucky and blessed that I caught it when I did," he said. "I wonder had I not gone in that day, would I be sitting here six months later still not knowing anything was wrong? If it was already in one lymph node, would it now be in two or three? Would it have spread more?
"My message to people out there is to be aware of your body. If something doesn't feel right, go check with your doctor. With my particular type of testicular cancer, no one talks about it, but it's the most common cancer for guys my age. I never knew that. Most people just kind of keep quiet about it, but I really hope people will take notice that the only way things will get more serious is if you don't get something checked out. I'm a very private person, but I have made a conscious decision to be open about this and try and bring awareness to it. If me being open about this and talking about it helps one person, then it's all been worth it."
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