BHSU football player's game plan to tackle leukemia

SPEARFISH, S.D. (AP) — Brett Lamb has seen his whole world turn upside down in less than a year.

In 2018, Lamb, a red-shirt sophomore linebacker from San Antonio, Texas, was playing football at Black Hills State University where he played in 10 games, totaled 54 tackles with 19 assisted and seven tackles for loss, had 1.5 sacks, and had a season high nine tackles against CSU-Pueblo.

This spring he played in the Yellow Jackets spring football game in mid-April, and he was working out hard to get ready for the 2019 football season.

Then toward the end of May his life suddenly changed.

"I'd say the last week of May for about a week straight, everything was very achy. I was very sluggish and tired, lethargic feeling," Lamb said.

After a week he felt better but then took a turn for the worse, and he decided it was time to go see a doctor in mid-June.

"I got diagnosed with Pericarditis (an inflammation of the tissues around the heart that can build up with fluid) in Spearfish, and I was taking some medicine and I was doing fine," Lamb said.

More tests, including a CT scan, revealed his spleen had enlarged.

"On the 27th they called me to the Regional Health in Spearfish and my white blood count was around 39,000, and normally it should be between 5,000 and 10,000" he said. "The doctor continued testing, including for mono, Lyme disease, etc."

Lamb then took it upon himself to begin searching to see if he could find out what was going on with him.

"I was looking up stuff on the internet. I was scared. I was telling my roommates and my parents that I might have leukemia. This was about a week and a half before I was diagnosed with it. It was something I really didn't want to accept, because who the hell wants to accept a bad cancer?" Lamb said.

Sue Lamb, Brett's mother, said the family was in denial at first, when Brett told them he had been researching his symptoms online and thought he might have leukemia.

"Google is our friend, and Google is our enemy," Sue Lamb said. "We thought, Brett is an athlete and he incredibly disciplined and strong and he's not getting sick. It just made sense to us it was some kind of viral thing," she said.

Lamb said he went to Dallas on June 27 with his girlfriend for a short visit with his family.

"We drove 16 hours and we got there on the 28th and I didn't feel great. I was very pale. My parents were worried," he said. "Then on the 29th I wasn't feeling good and I kept telling them I might have leukemia and they didn't want to believe it."

On June 30, he woke up and saw little red dots on his ankles (Petechiae), a sign of broken blood vessels unable to be closed off, as his platelets were low.

"Right then my family and I knew I had to go to the hospital," Lamb said

The doctor in Dallas told Lamb he believed Lamb had leukemia, and they immediately transferred him to Baylor University Medical Center.

While at Baylor, doctors confirmed his Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) diagnosis and recommended he be transferred to Medical City Children's Hospital in Dallas, where because he was under the age of 25, he could be treated under the more aggressive Pediatric protocol.

After being transferred to Medical City Children's Hospital on July 1, the doctor told Lamb it was 100% certain that he had ALL.

"The results showed 95% of my blood had leukemia cells in it," he said. "Shortly after that they confirmed I tested positive for the Philadelphia chromosome (Ph+ALL) acute lymphocytic (or lymphoblastic) leukemia in the bone marrow where blood cells are made. It is more common in children than in adults."

Brett said he was shocked by the diagnosis and had a hard time, at first, accepting it.

Philadelphia chromosome is where chromosome No. 9 and chromosome No. 22, which are both proteins, split off and create a different protein, and that protein then accelerates the spread of leukemia

Leukemia is cancer of the body's blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and the lymphatic system.

Sue Lamb said the family was devastated when they heard the diagnosis.

"When we found out he had leukemia, our whole world turned upside down. We couldn't believe it," she said.

Lamb said the doctors had told him that their educated guess was he had contracted leukemia around the first week of April.

"I didn't have any symptoms at that time, so I didn't know I had it," Lamb said.

Sue Lamb said the family has no history of blood cancer or leukemia before Brett's diagnosis.

Brett is taking several medications daily, including a chemo pill, and he goes to the hospital and does chemotherapy treatment every Tuesday.

His friends in Spearfish were stunned of the news.

His roommate Hunter Stephens, and teammate with the Black Hills State University football team, said he was stunned when he heard the news about Brett being diagnosed with leukemia.

"It was definitely a shock for sure. I was thinking it was stuff right out of a movie, like when your best friend has leukemia, just like something out of a movie. Definitely took me a long time to let it sink in. But I know he's going to be fine at the end of this," Stephens said.

His other roommate and teammate Cody Hooker said, "Brett's a fighter. He's one of the strongest people I know and if there is anyone can do this and beat cancer, it's going to be him."

Lamb said he feels his treatments are working, but they do take a lot out of him.

"I think the treatments are better. I'm feeling better. Going through chemo isn't easy because there are so many different side effects, but it has brought my numbers down," said Brett. "I feel pretty weak and get tired easily, and have nausea. It's just hard to deal with it especially coming from working out all the time, and being active, to staying in the house because my immune system is all messed up."

The cycle of daily treatments is staggering.

"It's going to be pretty complex for the next 60 to 90 days because this is the most critical timeframe where they have to get the cancer into first stage remission, then they'll go back and kill it some more for the next stage of it," Sue Lamb said. "Then we'll know probably in the next four weeks if he's going to need a bone marrow transplant."

"Brett's cancer is complex, and he's under pediatric care, which means his body can tolerate higher doses of the chemo cocktail, and he's under a stronger regiment routine, but he's on a better track to having better numbers (for his white blood count and platelets)," she said.

Patients 25 and younger are treated as pediatrics.

The costs of these treatments are high, and his family does have insurance, but that doesn't cover all the out-of-pocket expenses.

"The chemo drugs we have are very expensive. It's $1,450 co-pay for just one particular drug, for one month of pills. We have co-pay assistance for the first year, for this one drug, but other expenses as his treatment plan evolves will be very costly. We're dealing with it; we know it's going to be expensive," Sue Lamb said.

A Brett Lamb Donation Fund is set up at Wells Fargo, in Spearfish, as well as a GoFundMe account, where people can make donations to help the family defray some of the costs of the treatment.

John Reiners, Black Hills State University's head football coach, said plans are in the works to honor Brett this season.

Reiners said they are in the process of doing some things to honor Brett this fall.

"We are going to have stickers on our helmet. There's going to be white stickers with the No. 56 and an orange ribbon on it. They are going to be orange, because orange is the color of leukemia awareness. T-shirts and sweatshirts will be sold, and then at the very end all the proceeds from those sales will be donated to the charity of Brett's choice," Reiners said.

Through it all, Lamb has maintained his wry sense of humor

He was asked about reports that he is a good dancer. Lamb laughed a little bit and replied, "I've been told I'm a decent two-stepper, yes sir."

Lamb has been playing football since the age of 5.

He chose to play football at Black Hills State University because he wanted to branch out on his own, and BHSU made him feel welcome.

"It was more about the independence. I wanted to get away and do my own thing, and I wanted to go somewhere new," Lamb told the Black Hills Pioneer.

He attended summer camps at the university and he said he realized Spearfish was a small, family community, "and the coaches seemed like they really wanted me up there, and that meant a lot," Lamb said. "I love living up there, and I see myself living up there for a while after I graduate."

Lamb recalled telling his coach about his diagnosis, and he said Reiners was in shock.

"He couldn't believe it either. We cried and had a moment on the phone. He's been great through this. He has supported me and he has talked to me almost every single day," Lamb said.

Reiners said he was taken back when Brett told him his diagnosis.

"Obviously it is a lot of shock and then it is concern for Brett and his family. His life at the moment he found out he had leukemia changed things immensely," said Reiners. "Not only as a coach, but also as a father having a son the same age, you immediately go into parent mode. The biggest thing for me was, OK, are you getting the things you need? How are things down there, what do you need from us, that was my thing."

Lamb he has also talked to his teammates since his diagnosis.

"They are all in shock. I was working out with them over the summer," he said. "I talked to almost everybody and they said they are all praying for me and hoping the best for me and they are fighting with me to beat this."

Lamb said he appreciates all the support his family and friends have shown him.

"I've heard from quite a few people from Black Hills State, from some family and friends and teammates from Spearfish, a lot of friends and family from San Antonio and Dallas. It's been good to have a huge support group," he said.

Lamb said he plans to get his degree in business administration with a specialization in entrepreneurship, and he wants to once again wear the Green and Gold football uniform in the future.

"Yes sir, I plan to step on the football field again. That's my goal for right now," he said without hesitation.

Reiners said Brett told him the same thing.

"He has flat out told me, 'Coach, I'll be back in the spring. I'm going to be playing football again, and this is not going to beat me,' and I truly believe that," Reiners said.

Lamb said he still has a lot of living to do and he's not going to let leukemia keep him down.

"I have my whole life ahead of me, and dying isn't an option. I love my family, friends, coaches, and football team, and I don't want to let them down. I still have things I want to prove on the football field and personal goals I have yet to accomplish," said Lamb. "I want to be able to take off my helmet on my own terms, not because I am forced to from cancer. I'm going to fight this disease, and maybe someday my story will motivate others to overcome adversity in their own lives."

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Information from: Black Hills Pioneer, http://www.bhpioneer.com

An AP Member Exchange shared by the Black Hills Pioneer.