John’s Journal: One Step At A Time, One Foot In Front Of The Other
Mountain Lake’s Luke Klassen Conquers Cancer, Never Stops Running
Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2022 - 7:18 PM
Luke Klassen jokes about his hair … or current lack of hair. The good news is that his hair will come back. The cancer? That can stay away.
Luke is a senior at Mountain Lake High School who has been part of the Wolverines cross-country team since seventh grade. When he was diagnosed with cancer during the summer, his life was turned upside down and he thought his final season as a high school cross-country runner – he had been named a team captain -- would not happen.
But what happened was and is amazing. One day after being diagnosed with mixed germ cell cancer on June 11, he had surgery to remove a tumor from his groin area. Tests showed that cancer cells had spread to his chest and lymph nodes. Between then and Sept. 15, he underwent chemotherapy treatments in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, sometimes becoming so sick from the drugs that he could hardly stand. And yet …
Luke never stopped running. He has competed in every cross-country meet on the schedule this season. He hasn’t always competed with his varsity teammates, sometimes running junior varsity or junior high races. But he never stopped running. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
That’s how important his teammates, his friends, his coaches and cross-country is to him.
After running in the varsity race at the recent Buc Invite in Bue Earth, Luke told me, "I don't know how I would have made it through without this team and this sport."
Only four months had passed from Luke’s surgery until this week’s meet in Blue Earth. Shiny scalp aside, Luke looked strong as he ran. And he looked exactly like a team captain before and after, leading his teammates in stretching exercises and cheering for teammates who competed in other races before and after he ran.
“Luke has been the most faithful, inspired, inspirational person through all this,” said Mountain Lake coach Kyle Blomgren.
After Luke learned of his diagnosis, he went to Blomgren to tell him the bad news. That turned out to be an important meeting.
“I just knew it would be really hard,” Luke said. “Because I knew it would break his heart hearing that news. I didn't even know if I'd be able to get out of a chair for who knows how long because of this.”
Luke told the coach the diagnosis, thinking that the illness would never allow him to be the kind of team leader he wanted to be.
Blomgren’s response was not what Luke expected to hear. The coach talked about other ways to be a leader.
“He said, ‘Well, how are you going to lead then? What are you going to do?’ And we talked about it. We said even if I have to be in a chair on the sidelines, we’re going to lead and be involved and be a part of the team. And that was super inspirational to me.
“Here I was, going into it knowing I was just going to break his heart. I said, ‘I'm so sorry.’ And when I walked out, he had encouraged me a lot, which was really great.”
Among Luke’s teammates is his younger brother Zach. Their parents, Chad and Esther, along with extended family, friends and folks the Klassens may never meet, have offered support every step of the way.
T-shirts were sold. Fundraising events were held, with some proceeds being donated to Ronald McDonald House, which housed the Klassens for free while Luke was undergoing several five-day rounds of chemotherapy. An event called Luke 5:19 (after a Bible verse), held on Luke’s 18th birthday in August, saw people running or walking laps from noon until 5:19 p.m., with pledges coming in as nearly 400 miles were completed.
Luke’s mom is a breast cancer survivor, and Esther feared for what her son would be subjected to during treatments for what doctors considered Stage 3.1 cancer.
“I know what chemo is, so to willingly subject my child to what I had endured was hard,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, how can we put a 17-year-old through that? So I asked the oncologist, ‘What if we do nothing?’ She paused for a long time and looked at us to make sure what we were asking and she said the tumors will grow, they'll build up in his lungs and he'll suffocate and he'll be gone before he graduates from college.”
Luke said, “It was super gruesome and dark, obviously. But that put a good perspective on everything. I might be feeling like crap but I told myself I can endure this; I can't endure drowning in my own lungs.”
The decision to continue running came with the blessing of Luke’s care team, which included some experienced runners.
“They said being able to stay active in some way, keeping yourself somewhat moving and keeping yourself in good spirits was so important,” Chad said. “It doesn't just help you make it through mentally but your body even reacts better.”
One of the most astonishing races that Luke ran came at a home meet in Mountain Lake. It was held on a Friday, which was always the second day of Luke’s five-day chemo sessions.
As the Klassens were making the two-hour drive to Sioux Falls on Thursday, Luke asked his parents about competing in the race the next day.
“As a mom,” said Esther, “I just wanted to wrap him in bubble wrap.” She told her son they would ask his oncologist, “And if she approves,” she said to Luke, “I will drive you all the way back home.”
Luke completed that day’s chemo, got the OK to run, they returned home and the next morning he was running with his team in their home meet during his senior year. Afterwards it was back to Sioux Falls to continue with treatments.
There were plenty of rough patches, including two platelet transfusions and one blood transfusion. On the first day of cross-country practice, Luke nearly threw up. “I ran the warm-up and was shaky and unsteady and had to immediately run to the bathroom and hold myself with the toilet for a little bit,” he said.
On several occasions, the effects from chemo meant trips to the emergency room in Windom. But running, the simple act of running, was always there as a goal, a beacon. One step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
Luke’s goal in each competition was simple: Finish the race.
“I love this sport,” he said. “It’s something I’m passionate about, but I couldn't do much more than finish (early on). But once the chemo ended, I was able to start doing more immediately. The very next race, which wasn't even a week later, I already felt like I could actually race. I saw someone and I wanted to catch them. And I did. I didn't collapse.”
A year ago Luke was usually the No. 3 runner for his team. In cross-country, the places of the top five finishers for each team are combined to tabulate the final results. His goal this season is to return to the top five. He was the Wolverines’ No. 6 varsity finisher at the Buc Invite. The individual winner was Luke Miest of St. James. Zach Klassen was Mountain Lake’s No. 2 runner and Luke was 31st in a field of 44 runners.
Luke has a clean bill of health and undergoes tests every two months to make sure the cancer hasn’t returned. Those intervals will get larger as time goes on; eventually he will be tested once a year throughout his life.
The Klassens know they can never repay everyone for all the good deeds that have come their son’s way.
“We've seen that communities want to fight with someone and they love to get behind someone who is fighting,” Esther said. “Because life is hard.”
Luke’s attitude was a big factor in his battle. There were times in the hospital when he couldn’t stop vomiting, times when his blood pressure was worrisome, times when he had a dangerously high fever.
Esther recounted one of those times, saying, “There were like 10 of us in the room trying to help him. And then he just laid back and said (jokingly), ‘Well, that wasn't too bad.’
“He was really kind to all the nurses, which isn't always the case with every patient. Nursing is a tough job. He asked about their days. He thanked them for things.”
As strange as it may sound, Luke knows he was lucky. His cancer is highly treatable and he received tremendous care and support
“My cancer is really, really rare but it dies fast to the chemo,” he said. “Chemo kills it really well.”
Meanwhile, Luke continues to run. He also continues to lead. He’s looking forward to the track and field season, where he focuses on the 400- and 800-meter distances. He was an alternate on his school’s 4x800 relay team that placed eighth at the Class 1A state meet last spring. Wouldn’t a chance to run at state next year be a great way to cap his high school career?
“Running kept me going,” he said. “It gave me something to get up and do every day.”
One step at a time, one foot in front of the other.
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org