At the start of his second year as a Hesston College Lark, Luke Hertzler gave his fellow soccer teammates a pep talk.
“Every moment that you have on the soccer field, do not waste it,” he said. “Play with the immense joy that it gives you because you never know when it could be taken away.”
The words hit a little closer to home for Hertzler these days, as he nears Nov. 17, the fourth anniversary of his last chemotherapy treatment and one year closer to being cancer-free.
Hertzler was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) July 14, 2010. It was the fall of his seventh grade year, and while his fellow teammates prepared for another year of goals, penalty kicks and team victories, Hertzler faced a bigger battle.
Nearly seven years later, the details are a little fuzzy for Hertzler, but the memory of a year in and out of hospitals will continue to shape him today.
On that July day, Hertzler went in for his regular sports physical. But that was the last of anything normal.
An enlarged spleen led to two possible diagnoses.
“We were really praying for mono,” Hertzler said. “Which was odd.”
But the news came within hours as Hertzler and his family waited anxiously at home. Hertzler didn’t have mono, and more tests were needed before cancer could be confirmed.
“I just remember, at that point, I ran back to my parent’s bedroom and asked, ‘What’s wrong with me?’” Hertzler said. “And my mom said, ‘I don’t know, Luke. But we are going to figure it out.”
And that they did.
For the next three and a half years, Hertzler went through chemotherapy. He took the medicine, anything from pills to steroids, and he shaved his head.
But the steroids impacted Hertzler most of all. Each one had their own side effects.
“These steroid pills would mess with my mind at night,” Hertzler said. “And I would have all of these bad thoughts such as death or suicide. The thoughts just haunted me.”
But Hertzler is quick to add that he was never alone.
Over and over, the community came together for him.
Many people wore wristbands in his honor that read “Faith, hope, and courage.” Some sported orange shirts, the promotional color for leukemia awareness. The school volleyball team held a Dig Orange event and when the chemo days were over, Hertzler held a “No more Chemo” party with friends and family.
“The people surrounding me were incredible,” Hertzler said. “My school completely backed me. It was really special, and I knew I could always fall back on them.”
Hertzler found community through his pain, but he also created it for others.
“I focused on fighting each day and trying to be an example to others who were also going through the same thing,” Hertzler said. “I made a lot of friends in the hospital and wanted to be an encouragement to them.”
On his CaringBridge website, Hertzler even asked others to pray for specific friends he had made.
In his June 13, 2013 journal entry, Hertzler wrote:
“The main reason for updating my CaringBridge was to give you an update on Sam. As you know from the last update, his leukemia has returned, and he is back in the hospital. Please continue to pray for Sam and his family during this long process and journey. Your friend, Luke.”
“I had always known that leukemia was to share with others,” Hertzler said.
And on Nov. 17, 2014, Hertzler completed his last chemotherapy session.
He celebrated, he thanked God and he continued to share his story.
Now Hertzler is one year away from being completely cancer free and is back to playing the game he loves.
“Leukemia made me stronger because God surrounded me,” Hertzler said. “I knew one way or another I would get a healing. I never had the mindset that I was going to die. I was going to beat it.”