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John Reitman

By John Reitman

For superintendent and his family, one question remains: Why?

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Matt Henkel, who sought out alternative treatments at Duke University (above), says he is going to beat brain cancer.

Supposedly, everything happens for a reason. At least that is what we are told every time life deals us a bad hand. If anything, at least it helps rationalize hardship and adversity. After all, the reason for the misfortune du jour often is not so obvious, making the "God has a plan" explanation the only thing standing between us and despair.

How else could anyone possibly explain why a 41-year-old man with a wife and three young children is in the battle of his life against an aggressive form of brain cancer?

Matt Henkel, general manager and superintendent at Prairie View Golf Club, a public forest preserve property in Byron, Illinois,, was diagnosed with brain cancer 12 years ago. After several surgeries and radiation treatments, he was cancer-free for four years until his annual check-up last fall when doctors discovered a grade 4 glioblastoma that has left the family feeling gut-punched, unsure of the future and asking "why".

Glioblastoma, according to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, is a common and aggressively growing form of brain cancer for which there is no cure. Even with aggressive treatment, recurrence is virtually certain, making a long-term prognosis grim. The average length of survival is 15-18 months, and the five-year survival rate is about 10 percent.

While those statistics might appear cold in print, the Henkels already are quite familiar with them.

"Why has this happened? I don't know. I have to believe there is a reason," Matt's wife, Cammie, said. "This is just a chapter in our story. We don't know the ending yet. Some time down the road we might find out why this is happening. I know there will be a reason, we just don't know it yet. I'm not going to question it; I'm just going to go along for the ride."

After nearly a dozen surgeries to remove cancerous tissue and relieve fluid pressure on his brain, cancer is gone for Henkel - again. He has been cleared by doctors to return to work on a part-time basis, giving him a much-needed dose of normal life, however small it may be. 

In the face of recent good news, Matt and Cammie know the historic prognosis for people with this diagnosis. It is sometimes difficult to hold on to hope due to that nagging realism. Coming to grips with your own mortality tends to do that to a person. Still, Henkel, who has sought out experimental trials at Duke University and UCLA, holds out hope that he will be the one who bucks the trend, that maybe the reason he is going through this is so he can survive his ordeal and be an inspiration to others. Even his assistant said the only reason he got back into the business after a short stint in sales was because of Henkel's character.

When I went to the exam room and it was 45 minutes before he came in, I knew something wasn't right. He came in, and I could tell by the look on his face.

"I'm going to beat this," Henkel said.

"Since last Halloween, I've really had to work at keeping my head in the right spot. I'm remaining hopeful."

After all, he has much to live for.

The experience has made for some difficult discussions with their children, son Ashton (15) and daughters Claire (13) and Mara (8).

"It's hard with the children. Nobody can understand it until they are put through it," said Cammie, a first-grade teacher at Mary Morgan Elementary in Byron. 

"We've sat them down and talked to them. They know what the situation is, and we're very proud of how they are handling it. They've had to grow up fast. The dynamic has changed a lot in the last 11 months."

Restrictions resulting from the pandemic actually have provided the Henkels with a valuable opportunity. One they did not waste.

"One positive take during Covid has been six months of family time that we couldn't get back," Cammie said. "It gave us time together that we wouldn't have had, and we didn't miss out on anything, because whatever it was was canceled anyway."

100220matt3.jpgHenkel's ordeal is something no one should have to go through, and it is no experience for children either. 

It was early in 2008 and Henkel was getting ready for another golf season at Prairie View when something in his head just didn't feel right.

It started with fatigue and exhaustion that Henkel initially dismissed as the flu. That was in March. But it wasn't the flu. Those symptoms escalated over the next couple of months to include neck pain and headaches. He finally went to the emergency room at Katherine Shaw Bethea Hospital in Dixon, Illinois. Doctors there told him he had strep throat, but that was wrong, too, and things continued to worsen. That's when Cammie demanded doctors perform a CT scan.

The news was not good.

"The doctor said 'there's something on your brain. We're going to admit you and do an MRI tomorrow,' " Henkel said.

With the realization that this was no longer just a headache or a case of the flu, things suddenly started to get very real for the Henkels, who have been together since their days as high school sweethearts in Amboy, Illinois.

"We were just a young married couple," Cammie said. "The news wasn't real until we heard 'cancer,' and that set it all into motion." 

The hospital in smalltown Dixon, the boyhood home of Ronald Regan, was hardly the place for Henkel to deal with this, so doctors there recommended either Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, or the University of Wisconsin. Considering he probably would be making the trip multiple times, Henkel chose a few extra miles on the road to Madison, Wisconsin over Chicago's traffic.

After all, one headache at a time has been more than enough.

"Being young and naive with two kids under 2 years old, we didn't know the severity of it until we were sitting across from a team of doctors telling him he will be having brain surgery," Cammie said. "Then it was very real and there are so many emotions that run through your head."

After 11 surgical procedures to remove tumors, scrape away malignant cells and to insert and remove shunts to relieve fluid pressure on his brain; radiation treatments; chemotherapy; and a staff infection, Henkel deserved a break.

In 2014, there were signs he might have beaten cancer. At that time, he had been seeing doctors in Madison every three months for a fresh MRI to make sure the cancer had not returned. It was then when his surgeon suggested annual visits over quarterly.

"That was scary, but he's a neurosurgeon, so I trust him," Henkel said.

"So, in 2015, nothing; 2016, nothing; 2017, nothing; 2018, still all clear."

Just when Henkel was thinking this awful mess might be in his past, he was reminded last October what a soulless monster cancer is.

That was when the headaches and dizziness returned. He had trouble focusing when working on the computer and finding his place when reading. Things were bad enough that he called his neurosurgeon and asked to move up his annual visit to Oct. 31.

When he arrived in Madison and had the MRI, Henkel did not need a doctor to tell him something was wrong.

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"When I go for a scan, I usually have an appointment with the doctor immediately following," he said. "When I went to the exam room and it was 45 minutes before he came in, I knew something wasn't right. He came in, and I could tell by the look on his face."

He can still hear the words from his neurosurgeon, Dr. Azam Ahmed: "It's grown back, and it's big. I can't let you leave the hospital. You have to have surgery as soon as possible."

The diagnosis was a glioblastoma, a fast-growing form of brain cancer for which there is no cure. Even after surgery, recurrence is almost certain. But that did not stop Henkel and his doctors from trying.

After surgery on Nov. 1 and another MRI to determine whether there were any cancerous cells remaining, the surgeon wanted to go back in the following day to remove more matter. 

"I asked him 'what would you do?' " Henkel said. "He said he'd do it, so we did it. He felt confident that he got 100 percent of the visible tumor."

Ten months later, Henkel remains cancer free, but he has not been without his problems.

Early in the process, doctors determined that chemotherapy likely would not help his cancer and would be used only as a last option. After the surgery in November, Dr. Ahmed told him "it's time to play the chemotherapy card."

The road back also has meant more radiation - a month's worth to be exact. 

"I didn't tolerate that second wave of radiation nearly as well as the first," Henkel said. "I was sick from Day 1 all the way through it.

More headaches last winter revealed a fluid buildup asserting pressure on his brain that required shunts to relieve the pressure. 

"The headaches came right back," he said. "And I was sleeping 20 hours a day."

A staff infection in September that affected his central nervous system was the latest among an assault of challenges.

Naturally, Henkel has not been able to spend much time at the golf course since the GBM was diagnosed. Even without the cancer, the radiation, chemo, fluid on the brain and a dangerous infection together have been enough to keep him at home.

"The cancer hasn't really knocked him down until recently," Cammie said. 

"Going to the golf course was the one thing that always made him happy."

Mike Brown, Henkel's assistant for the past three years, has been holding down the operation in his absence. Brown, who prepped under Sam MacKenzie at Olympia Fields near Chicago, came to Prairie View after a short career in sales at J.W. Turf in Elgin, Illinois. When the job at Prairie View opened, he jumped on it because he knew Henkel and he knew his reputation.

"I always told myself I wasn't going to get back into it unless it was the perfect situation, and this was it," Brown said. "He is the salt of the earth, and he works harder than everyone else.

"I've learned a lot of agronomic practices from him, but what I've really learned from him is how to treat people."

Why has this happened? I don't know. I have to believe there is a reason. This is just a chapter in our story. We don't know the ending yet. Some time down the road we might find out why this is happening. I know there will be a reason, we just don't know it yet. I'm not going to question it; I'm just going to go along for the ride.

To that end, Henkel already has lobbied for Brown to be promoted to head superintendent.

"He's still the superintendent," Brown said. "We're not doing that.

"I'm not going to let him do too much. He's going to be like an advisor. Getting back to work is going to mean some sense of normal for him, and he needs that."

Although their situation is horrible, the Henkels have discovered they are not alone.

Jaron McCracken, who is from Henkel's hometown of Amboy, also is battling brain cancer. Henkel realizes his purpose might include helping McCracken through his experience.

"We're in this together," Matt said. "We're going to be the two who beat it and watch our kids grow up."

Cammie has gotten involved with cancer groups and helps others in a similar situation deal with their anxiety, fear and grief.

"Everyone is here for a reason," she said. "I've tried to help others.

"I've known others, since Matt's first diagnosis, who have died. The initial diagnosis is scary, but he's still here, he's still working and he's still giving others positivity."

And just maybe it helps answer that question: Why?

"The reality is it just sucks," Cammie said. "We know what happens with GBM. My bar isn't set very high for reality. It scares me. We treat every day as a blessing."

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