Former WSU center Riley Sorenson beat testicular cancer once last year. Now, with his girlfriend, Elisabeth Haffner still by his side, he's determined to do it again.
His survival story had already been written: in the span of a year, former Washington State offensive lineman Riley Sorenson, weathered the deaths of both his parents at separate times, fought through a bout of testicular cancer and surgery, and recovered in time to play out his senior season with the Cougars.
But that was last year.
With his WSU football career in the rearview mirror and his college degree almost in hand, this year, for Sorenson, was supposed to be about moving on. Or as his girlfriend Elisabeth Haffner puts it, “We thought we were going to start our lives this summer.”
Then, three weeks ago, bad news came in the form of a phone call. Sorenson had just gotten a CAT scan – he has those every six months now to ensure that his cancer stays in remission – and his doctor was calling with the results.
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“I hate to give you this news over the phone,” the doctor said. “But there’s something on the CAT scan.”
The cancer was back, this time in the form of a tumor in the back of Sorenson’s abdomen. He’d experienced some lower back pain for a few weeks leading up to the CAT scan, but dismissed it as a lingering ache from his football days.
As it turned out, it was cancer. Again.
“I was pretty surprised,” Sorenson said. “Just because the odds they gave me the first time (estimated) only a 10 percent (likelihood) that it would come back.”
Last summer, Sorenson had one of his testicles removed but, after consulting with five doctors, made the calculated decision to not undergo chemotherapy.
At the time, doctors told Sorenson and Haffner – his primary caregiver – that “there was a lower chance for it to come back than for him to have long term damage from chemo,” Haffner said. “So with those odds, how do you expect that the cancer is going to come back?”
This relapse has thrown yet another wrench into the young couple’s plans.
Sorenson is finishing one final class this summer for him to get his WSU degree, but he and Haffner began 2017 hoping that he would be able to sign with an NFL team and continue his football career.
Unfortunately, the NFL draft came and went, and Sorenson didn’t manage to catch on with any NFL teams.
So when the young couple discussed their options earlier this summer, they talked about perhaps moving back to Eugene, Oregon for Haffner to finish her education degree at the University of Oregon. Haffner had taken time off from school last year to move to Pullman to care for her boyfriend during his first bout of cancer.
After helping out as a volunteer assistant coach on the WSU offensive line during spring ball in April, Sorenson was mulling the idea of getting into coaching and was hoping to explore that this fall.
Now, that has all been put on hold as Sorenson undergoes a rigorous three-month course of chemotherapy.
Sorenson can’t drive because his medication sometimes make him dizzy, and one of the side effects it brings is short term memory loss, which could be dangerous if it strikes while he’s behind the wheel. So, Haffner drives Sorenson to Lewiston for chemo treatments that last four hours per session and can leave him fatigued and nauseous.
The robust offensive lineman who was once a solid three-year starter for the Cougars is adapting to the constraints of his current situation.
Sorenson has to limit his sun exposure because, as a result of the chemo, his skin cells aren’t being produced as quickly, and he has a higher risk of sun damage. The workouts that so often provided Sorenson with a welcome distraction from the troubles of life are, for now, also a thing of the past.
Instead, Sorenson battles constant fatigue and sometimes even struggles to get up the two flights of stairs that lead to the Pullman apartment he shares with Haffner.
“When we’re doing the chemo, I can just feel like I’m so much more physically fatigued,” Sorenson said. “My legs feel so much heavier than they usually do.”
Yet, as they did last time around, Sorenson and Haffner are determined to fight off the cancer again.
“You either let it break you down and let it destroy you, or you learn from it, become a better person from it and move on,” Haffner said. “It’s not all sunshine and rainbows because it sucks. It’s really scary and there’s a lot that I manage and have to balance and juggle and take on, but you can’t let that derail you from moving forward.”
As Sorenson’s full-time caregiver, Haffner has reduced the hours she’s working at a photography studio in Pullman to allow more time and flexibility to tend to his needs. She judiciously tracks his treatment through a two-inch binder of notes that she’s assembled, and keeps the apartment as clean as possible to reduce Sorenson’s risk of infection.
Because Sorenson is still in school and Haffner is working fewer hours, they’re making ends meet only through the generosity of friends and family.
The Cougars have rallied around Sorenson again. Many of his former teammates have checked up on him, linemen Garrett McBroom and Cole Madison have offered to dog-sit Sorenson and Haffner’s puppy whenever they have to go to Lewiston for Sorenson’s chemo, and quarterback Luke Falk stopped by the apartment recently to drop off protein shakes that Sorenson says are invaluable on days when he’s feeling too nauseous to eat anything.
A group of her mother’s friends whom Haffner affectionately calls “The Aunties” also pitched in to buy the couple several months worth of Blue Apron, a delivery service that sends you pre-portioned meal ingredients all ready to be assembled for dinner.
The week Sorenson found out about his relapse, Haffner’s best friend, Courteney Fisher, also started a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to raise money for Sorenson’s medical bills and expenses. The campaign has raised $23,015 of its $30,000 goal in three weeks.
“We’re so appreciative of all the support, “Haffner says. “Even if we can’t thank everybody personally, we’re incredibly grateful.”
In the meantime, Sorenson and Haffner focus their energies on enjoying Sorenson’s good days and surviving his bad ones.
If everything goes as planned, Sorenson will finish chemo by early September. Then, hopefully, he and Haffner will finally get to move on with their lives.
“This chemo, from what everyone is saying, is the safest because there’s not usually any deaths or anything, and it’s pretty finite,” Sorenson says. “Once you do it, it’s pretty honed in. This (testicular) cancer has a high rate of survival too. If you’re going to get cancer, this is the one to get.”