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‘We just have to look forward’

By Marie Havenga for Spectrum Health Beat • Feb 11, 2018 at 12:00 PM

When Schuyler Kleibusch noticed bumps on his scalp three years ago, he thought they were a typical teenage issue.

“I thought they were zits,” said Schuyler, who was 14 at the time. “But then I had spells when I passed out. That raised a few red flags.”

Schuyler saw a doctor, who referred him to a dermatologist. A biopsy revealed the ugly truth behind the bumps.

“They were cancerous,” Schuyler said. “When I first heard that, I thought I was going to die, because all you hear about is people passing away from cancer. You don’t hear about people surviving it. I was scared. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to play football and have my normal life.”

The dermatologist immediately sent him to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Scans revealed a giant tumor in his chest, and several other tumors.

“There was a large mass in his chest that wrapped around his heart and arteries and went into his neck even,” said Schuyler’s mom, Jana Jones. “The top of his scalp was covered in tumors. It was in the bone marrow in his legs, but was not in his spinal cord or brain.”

Diagnosis? Stage 3 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer that is a cousin to leukemia.

When Dr. Jessica Foley, a pediatric hematology-oncology specialist, told him the news, he asked if he could still play football.

“I was tore up when he asked that,” Jones said. “He really didn’t understand what this was going to be like and what we’re up against. He was looking forward to playing another undefeated season.”

Jones prayed her son’s undefeated record would remain in his fight against cancer.

Schuyler started chemotherapy the morning after the diagnosis. He continued with chemo treatments for two and a half years, finishing last July.

He couldn’t play football his freshman year at Northview High School, but competed as a sophomore and this past season as a junior.

On Sunday, Feb. 4, he hoped to see himself on a bigger football stage. A worldwide one.

Schuyler participated in a Super Bowl ad for Hyundai. Although he didn’t appear in the ad that aired with 3:07 left in the game, Schuyler did appear in a commercial that was published on the car company’s Facebook page during the Super Bowl broadcast.

The car company flew Schuyler and his family out to Minnesota the last weekend in January for filming. While he was there, “Good Morning America” also interviewed him. That segment aired the day after the Big Game.

“That was probably one of the biggest experiences I’ve ever had and probably one of the coolest ones I’ll ever have in my life,” he said. “They gave me money to go try out new restaurants. I’m kind of a foodie. I love trying different stuff and I love traveling. I was so happy. I’m super thankful, out of all the people they could have picked, they chose me. I couldn’t be any more thankful for all the people I met there and all the experiences I had.”

In addition to a “really messy but really good” cheese-stuffed burger at Hell’s Kitchen, Schuyler’s favorite part of the journey was the NFL Super Bowl Experience at the Minneapolis Convention Center. There, he got to see the Lombardi trophy and Super Bowl rings, get autographs from players, and immerse himself in the festival flavor of the game.

“I’m a football player, so that was really cool,” he said.

Schuyler was one of 19 childhood cancer survivors from around the country to participate in the Super Bowl commercial. Not everyone made the final cut.

But he may appear in future Hyundai commercials.

“So cool,” Schuyler said.

During filming, he talked about his cancer experience.

“I talked about my medical journey and pushing through it, living life day by day, not ever taking for granted what I had,” he said.

He also got to talk with some Hyundai customers, and to thank them.

The car company donates a portion of proceeds from every vehicle sale to pediatric cancer research.

“It was nice to sit there and say ‘thank you’ for what they had done,” Schuyler said. “Some people don’t understand how far a little donation will go, even if they didn’t know a percentage of their purchase goes to that.”

Schuyler said he’s thankful for past research that likely led to his current remission. He still returns to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital for monthly checkups.

“If it wasn’t for the research, I’d probably be looking at a shorter lifespan or possibly not being able to survive,” Schuyler said. “Because of the research they had done, I just had to have chemo and not radiation.”

Jones said she’s proud of her son. She filmed a short video of the moment she told him he would be flying to Minnesota to take part in a Super Bowl commercial. You can view it on Facebook on “Schuyler’s Fight” page.

Jones said that although Schuyler is winning his fight, some of his friends were not so fortunate.

“It’s difficult when you make friends along the journey and they lose their battles,” Jones said. “It makes it difficult going to funerals. But Schuyler says, ‘We just have to look forward.’”

And part of looking forward is trying to make a difference.

“We need to promote more funding for research,” Jones said. “If he can be the voice for people who aren’t here, he’s going to be that voice.”

This article first appeared on spectrumhealthbeat.org.

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