October 21, 2013

After cancer diagnosis, Maine teen puts life on fast track

Damon Haggan of Belgrade plans to get married next month and wants to establish a family and a legacy.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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click image to enlarge

Damon Haggan, 18, of Belgrade was diagnosed with mesothelioma in May. He plans to marry his girlfriend of two years in November.

Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

The Damon Haggan Cancer Fund

Damon Haggan, 18, of Belgrade has been diagnosed with stage 4 mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the internal organs. Mesothelioma is rare, occurring in one of 100,000 people.

His medical care is covered by insurance, but his family is struggling to pay associated costs, such as the unpaid time off for travel to medical centers in Boston. He is also seeking support for his wedding, planned for November.

The family asks donors to send contributions to the Damon Haggan Cancer Fund at TD Bank, or to donate online at www.gofundme.com/damon-haggan-mesothelioma.

Haggan looks healthy – until recently he thought nothing of going for a 12-mile run. He wears a serious expression on his naturally pale face, his short-cropped fair hair mostly hidden beneath the hunting cap. His illness only becomes apparent when he pulls up his T-shirt, exposing tubes that drain the fluid accumulating in the remaining sections of his lungs.

Before the tubes were inserted, doctors drained 6.5 liters of fluid out of his lung and abdomen.

At that point, no one seemed to know what was wrong with him. He had a biopsy done on the swollen lymph nodes in his neck, but at first, the diagnosis – mesothelioma – seemed so unlikely in a person so young that doctors thought it might be an incorrect lab result.

Further biopsies on his stomach and sides confirmed the presence of cancer.

Haggan said he tries to ignore the diagnosis, in the same way the lifelong risk-taker has ignored other risks in the pursuit of excitement.

Sitting beside him, his mother, Dawn Nalley, who works as a nanny in Waterville, said she knew Haggan was a thrill-seeker when he was just 6 and the family lived in Strong.

“Out behind our home, there was a cliff, and he thought his bike was going to jump it,” she said.

“My Looney Tunes bike,” he said, with a rare smile.

“Then he went onto a rock and broke his elbow, and we wound up in the hospital and all that,” Nalley said, with the kind of head-shaking smile common to mothers of high-octane boys. “He was definitely one that had no fear.”

It didn’t take Haggan long to graduate from bicycles to motor-powered vehicles. A few years later, Haggan said, he got one of the best Christmas presents of his life.

“Back when we were living in the trailer, Great-Grampa gave me his old ‘87 Arctic Cat Jag snowmobile,” he said. “I beat the heck out of that thing. I love speed.”

But now, the stakes have never been higher, and the outcome has never looked more bleak.

Doctors have told Haggan that he will live for three months without chemotherapy and 10 months with it.

Haggan is openly defiant of the prognosis.

“I got ’til I decide I want to go. No one puts a number on me,” he said.

It’s what he told the doctor, too.

“It ain’t gonna happen,” he said. “I mean, I do have it, yeah, I do. But it ain’t gonna stop me. I’m just gonna keep doing what I love to do until the day I die.”

Haggan points out that the lifespan predictions used by doctors are based on the averages of all those who come down with that form of cancer.

Since most of the roughly 4,500 sufferers of mesothelioma get it when they’re older – four out of five are diagnosed when they’re at least 65 – Haggan reasons that he’s likely to outlive the doctor’s predictions.

And Haggan is not just young, but fit and active.

He explains the uncertainty of the prediction, aptly enough, using a car metaphor.

“It’s like trying to say, OK, my car is going to break down tomorrow. Well, it doesn’t break down for three, four, five, six months, or years,” he said.

Before the diagnosis, Haggan was determined to put his adventurous inclinations to good use. When he was a kid, he wanted to be a police officer. As he grew older, he said, the Army began to take on an extra appeal.

“I could say, ‘Hey, I’m actually brave enough to stand up for my country and the freedom that we have. You’ve got a lot of other people that sit home and are lazy and smoke pot or drink their lives away,” he said.

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