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'We aren't really alone;' RFHS senior Andrew Schlee battling Burkitt Lymphoma

Andrew Schlee is surrounded by his seven siblings during his first day at Mayo Clinic. “They were all with him the first day of his Mayo Clinic visit and they followed him all the way over to the hospital. They are all very very supportive,” said Andrew’s mother Jessie Schlee. Submitted photo1 / 2
RFHS senior Andrew Schlee was diagnosed with Burkitt Lymphoma in April and has since been getting treatment in Rochester. Submitted photo2 / 2

A month before he turned 18 on April 16, River Falls High School senior Andrew Schlee was excited about what the future held for him after high school. However, his world came crashing down just a few weeks before his birthday when he was diagnosed with Burkitt Lymphoma, with a tumor in his abdomen.

"When I found out I cried. We had no answers like what kind, what stage, just shock. It was afternoon when I got the call and Andrew was at work. I didn't want to tell him until he got home but he knew we were waiting for the call so he sent me a text," said Andrew's mother, Jessie Schlee. "I told him we could talk about it after work but he left two hours early and came home. When Andrew came home and heard he was calm for awhile, then while sitting at the table he started to cry.

"I don't know what went through his mind for the two weeks of testing and waiting. It seemed to take such a long time to find out if he could be cured, how long that would take, or if he could possibly die."

The journey to being diagnosed with Burkitt Lymphoma — which, according to the Lymphoma Research Foundation, is a form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in which cancer starts in immune cells called B-cells — was a long one for Andrew and started with stomach cramps that didn't subside for nearly two days. On that Friday, Andrew told his mom he needed to see a doctor because he could feel a lump in his abdomen. When Andrew laid down, Jessie could feel a lump in the lower right quadrant of his abdomen and got Andrew an appointment for Monday.

"They did an X-ray and ultrasound but did not see anything. The doctor could feel the lump, so he ordered a CT scan. When we got the CT scan report back, it only said cancer and that was on April 1," Jessie said. "That doctor got us an appointment at Rochester Mayo two days later ... They also did a colonoscopy, and lumbar puncture. He went through other tests during the week like X-ray, ultrasound, and another CT scan. They tested his whole body to make sure the cancer was no place else, which it is wasn't. It took about two weeks to get a final diagnosis of Burkitt Lymphoma."

The tumor was 7 centimeters and growing on the lining at the end of the small intestine. The tumor was growing inward and out and also extending into the large colon. According to Jessie, the doctors seem confident that he will be cured after treatment of four to six months, depending on how the tumor responds.

"After the first week of chemo they did a CT scan and they wanted the tumor to shrink at least 20%, it went down 90%. This does not change the amount of treatment he has to go through. He was supposed to be in the hospital for five to seven days until the chemo flushed through his body," Jessie said. "He gets IV fluids the whole time and he has also started nausea meds. But also complains a lot about headaches. He couldn't get out of bed without a H/A after about five minutes."

In addition to giving Andrew chemo medication through a port-a-cath in his chest, he is also receiving chemo meds in his spinal fluid to ensure the cancer doesn't spread to that part of his body.

"Other than one night he got to spend at home, he was in the hospital for two weeks and stuck in bed that whole time. After his next lumbar puncture they made him lie flat on bed rest for 48 hours. During that week I was with him on Monday. He wouldn't talk to anyone except very briefly to staff. He would look at his phone briefly or stare at the TV, or sleep," Jessie said. "When he faced you it was like I know he hears something but it was a blank stare then he looked away like he wasn't aware you said anything. This scared me. He looks like he is in a deep depression. He has to be told to order food or he just lays there. He did say once that food doesn't seem to have taste anymore."

The week of May 6, Jessie said that Andrew seemed to have a few good days, but then was tired and seemed depressed again just a day later. Andrew was able to make it home for a day the week prior, but was back in the ER that Friday night complaining of shortness of breath, which is a side effect of the medication he is taking to boost his immune system.

"His hair started falling out 5 days ago (today is May 8). So this last weekend he shaved it all off. I know he felt sad about this. I am able to Facetime him on our phones and he wears his baseball cap," Jessie said. "I live in River Falls where Andrew also lived. He planned, after high school, to move to Rochester where his three brothers live with his father. During all this, he has moved in with his father so he is close to the clinic/hospital and doesn't have to drive one and a half hours to get to his appointments. I stay at the hospital overnight in his room when he is admitted. I bring his younger brother, Marcus, who is 13, to be with him."

Although things have been rough for Andrew and his family over the last few months, Andrew went to see a movie on May 7 after a long time on bed rest and being unable to leave the hospital.

According to Jessie, Andrew has made it through one round of treatment so far; the second round was scheduled to start on May 8.

"If all goes well he goes home for two weeks. He will repeat this two more times. After the third round they will do a CT scan to see how they are progressing. If good, he will have one last round, if not, more will be added," Jessie said. "We all have our moments where we cry or want to cry. I told my kids to be happy if Andrew is happy and if he is sad it doesn't matter who is around, just hug him and hold him tight. Let him cry and you cry. Seems like for others' sake that maybe Andrew holds it in. Some days he just seems so emotionless and I hate that."

Before his diagnosis, Andrew was a lively kid, Jessie said. He was a manager at McDonald's in River Falls, worked out at Iron Works Gym and loved wrestling with his younger brother, to the annoyance of his mother.

"He has two sisters, five brothers, two nephews and one niece that he adores. He likes to be silly and he is hugely into politics. He was looking forward to moving to Rochester. He was thinking about law enforcement. He just was excited to start his life like his older siblings," Jessie said. "Andrew is a straight A student. He only had one class he was working on and only had a week or two left. He was doing work study at his job.

"He has not been to school since before April 1 but he was basically done and is allowed to graduate. I am really hoping he is having a good day June 2 so he can get his diploma with his classmates."

Through everything, Andrew and his family have found support from their community as well as two local organizations that have helped with gas expenses and food: River Falls Sunshine Fund and the Rhino Foundation.

"I would feel helpless if it weren't for prayer because what else can I do. We have family and friends praying. I am surprised how we aren't really alone. People have pitched in for the GoFundMe and offered to help anywhere possible, it's truly amazing," Jessie said. "We appreciate all the help we have received. I don't know if this would embarrass Andrew but to explain what a kind heart he has: When he heard a GoFundMe was started I imagine he was thinking about his parents' medical expenses. Without talking to anyone, he donated to his own fund to help us. For all he has been through and has yet to go through, he is kind and so generous. I am proud of this kid."

For more information on how Andrew is doing or to donate to the Schlee family, visit gofundme.com/f/andrew-schlee039s-medical-expenses or search for Andrew Schlee on GoFundMe.com.

Jordan Willi
Jordan Willi is a reporter for the New Richmond News. Previously, he worked as a sports reporter at the Worthington Daily Globe in Worthington, Minnesota. He also interned at the Hudson Star Observer for two summers and contributed to the Bison Illustrated sports magazine at North Dakota State University.
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