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

BELGRADE — Damon Haggan is only 18, but he is trying to arrange for a wedding, a child and a legacy – all the challenges of adulthood – as quickly as he can.

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.

The urgency, which would be out of place in most young men his age, stems from a cancer diagnosis he received just weeks ago.

Until recently, Haggan’s life and thoughts were focused on his passions – the girls he’s kissed, the cars he’s owned, the animals he’s hunted, the bones he’s broken, the fish he’s caught, and the speeds he’s attained on motorcycles and snowmobiles.

Wearing a hunting cap with a large fish hook through the brim, he talked about his first car, a Jeep Cherokee, between sips from a water bottle of blue Gatorade, which he said is the only drink he can keep down.

“I could stick my fingers through the frame, so I got the money back for it, got to keep it, sold it for junk. Then I got an ’88 Chevy with nine inches of lift with 33s on it, so I used that as my toy for a while. Then I just got rid of that, and now I’ve got a ’94 Jeep Wrangler with six inches of lift with 33s on it,” he said.

But his life’s interests changed when Haggan was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that attacks the linings of the internal organs. Haggan’s cancer is stage 4, which means it has already spread throughout his body.

Now, he’s forced to deal with a new set of experiences – the liters of fluid he’s had drained from his lungs, the painkillers he’s swallowed, the biopsies he’s endured, the ambulance rides he’s taken, and, most importantly, the number of months he’s got to live.

Haggan is trying to cram a life’s worth of achievements and aspirations into however much time he has left.

He is still a teenager, but he is urgently trying to establish a family, a future and a legacy.

His first order of business was to ask his girlfriend of two years, Keshia Fournier, to marry him. The two are planning a wedding for Nov. 9, and Haggan, an avid hunter, said he’s put careful consideration into his outfit, mostly camouflage.

“I’m gonna have my black steel-toed boots, black Carhartts, camo vest and tie with camo jacket, a camo hat,” he said. His camouflage sunglasses are in the mail.

Fournier, a thin girl with freckles and a ready smile, said she and Haggan love each other and had planned a relationship that would last far into the future.

“I was hoping it would,” she said. “But ...”

If he undergoes chemotherapy, his sperm will no longer be viable, so he’s also scheduling an appointment with a sperm bank. When Fournier is ready, he said, he wants her to bear his child.

“I’m not dying without a kid,” he said.

Haggan has a habit of asserting that things will happen the way he wants them to.

“I will have kids. That I will,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody says.”

Fournier said she hasn’t thought about when she might get pregnant, because she is trying to stay positive about Haggan’s future.

Haggan’s got another goal, but he’s not sure whether he’ll be able to accomplish it. In November, Haggan’s father died in a car accident. The car, a ’94 Mustang GT convertible, was ruined, but Haggan saved the motor and the transmission. He would love, he said, to rebuild those parts into a fully functioning car that would honor his father’s memory, and be around long into the future.

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.

Haggan graduated from high school a year early and entered the military for a few months at the age of 17 before receiving an honorable medical discharge for a shoulder injury suffered during combat training.

For now, Haggan is trying to live as normal a life as possible, even though he can’t run a half-mile, do push-ups or lift more than 10 pounds at a time. Because of the illness, he has had a pulmonary embolism on each side of his body, he said, which has caused him to lose the use of the bottom third of each lung.

On the morning of Oct. 14, he was rushed to St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston for emergency surgery because of bleeding in his lungs. Doctors installed a filter to stop the blood clots from reaching his heart, but have been unable to install a port for chemotherapy because blood clots are forming elsewhere in his body. Haggan was released from the hospital that evening and returned home.

Haggan’s ability to accomplish his goals – wedding, child, car restoration – are limited in part by what he and his family can afford.

Even though his medical bills are covered by MaineCare, the family budget is being strained.

His mother has already taken three weeks unpaid off work so she could take Haggan to Boston for 10 days of medical treatments. In all, that trip cost them $2,000 out of pocket. They expect more costs in the future.

That means his mother can offer him only limited help with his other plans. So far, they have been unable to raise the $300 deposit at his favored wedding venue in Strong.

“It will be the Foster Memorial Building in Strong,” he said, another assertion. “The wedding and the reception. That’s where it will be.”

He said it will cost him about $350 for the first year of storage at the sperm bank, and about $700 every year thereafter. He doesn’t know what it would cost to rebuild his father’s car, but he knows it will be significant.

Haggan said he is maintaining a positive attitude and continuing to do the things that he loves. He said he is willing to share his experiences and thoughts in the hopes that it might help others with similar diagnoses.

He won’t make his own predictions about how long he will live with the cancer inside him. For him, a young person who has spent his life testing limits, the number of months he has is not as important as maintaining control over the decisions left to him.

He will decide when the time comes, he said.

“When I can’t take it no more,” he said, “I just lay down and relax.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be contacted at 861-9287 or at: mhhetling@centralmaine.com.

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