Willie Saylor, Editor
Early in March, Benton Senior Eric Hess was standing on top of the podium in Hershey, PA, after winning his second state title in his third finals appearance. He defeated Dirk Cowburn, also a two-time champ, three-time finalist.
Hess was on top of the world. A nationally-ranked wrestler with an impeccable academic record capping off a great career and taking his talents to Lehigh University.
Just a few weeks later, Hess would be humbled by an adversary he didnâ€™t know he was facing.
Competing for a high school national title at NHSCAâ€™s Senior National Championships, Hess struggled to merely get through early round bouts, not necessarily on the scoreboard, but within his own aerobic ability. This wasnâ€™t something Eric had ever had issues with before. Something was wrong; he and his coaches knew it.
After withdrawing from the event, the Hess family headed back home to Pennsylvania and sought medical attention. After a battery of tests, the diagnosis was shocking: Hodgkinâ€™s Lymphoma; a form of cancer that originates from white blood cells and spreads from one lymph node to the next.
Shocking because before stepping on the mat that weekend, Eric was thought to be in peak physical condition. Even more shocking, because his mother had experienced the same malady years earlier.
While word has circulated that Eric was sick and subsequently hospitalized and treated, the details, to the general public, havenâ€™t been readily available. Here, weâ€™ll let Eric discuss in his own words, the ordeal heâ€™s gone through, his progress and status, and his optimism for the future.
WS: Can you describe how the diagnosis played out? You were at NHSCA’s when you were having difficulty breathing during a match, is that correct?
Eric: Yes, my symptoms first appeared when I at the NHSCA Senior Nationals in Virginia Beach. Everything happened very suddenly actually. We arrived in Virginia on Wednesday and the senior portion of the tournament did not start until Friday. Thursday morning I woke up and went for a very fulfilling run, and felt on the top of my game. Friday morning I had a 45 min warm up with Coltin Fought, a member of my high school team, and still felt extremely healthy. However, about 2 minutes into my first match I began to become very dizzy and short of breath. I managed to win the match and then proceeded to lie down until I was called to wrestle again. I went on to win again, however, barely made it through the match. Luckily, I pinned my opponent in the second period. After I was released from the gym, I went to the beach house and slept for 15 hours. The next morning I struggled to win my next match. Then, in the semi-finals I lost. At that point my coach and father pulled me from the tournament.
WS: Had you ever experienced any symptoms leading up to those bouts?
Eric: No, I had no prior symptoms before the first match at NHSCA’s. My physicians are unable to answer why everything happened to suddenly.
WS: What happened next?
Eric: After returning home, I went to the emergency room. Originally, the doctors believed I had a heart condition that was causing the complications. After testing was complete, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
WS: What’s your current situation and status? What treatments do you currently go through?
ERIC: I have been diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The blood born cancer has formed a 16cm. tumor in my chest cavity. Currently I am undergoing chemotherapy treatments at Geisinger Medical Center. After chemo is complete I will then move into my next phase of treatment: Radiation Therapy. The goal is to be cancer FREE by the end of September.
WS: How does this affect your school work?
ERIC: My school, Benton Area School District, has been so supportive. I am truly blessed to have such wonderful teachers and administration behind me. I attend classes as much as possible. When I am not able to attend school, a teacher from the district comes to my home keeps me caught up with any work I have missed.
WS: Your mother had the same illness. Can you talk about what she went through, the similarities, and how she has helped you?
ERIC: My mother also had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She is now 16 years in remission. God has blessed me with such an amazing Mom. I look to her for strength now more than ever. She acts as a beacon of support for me when I struggle in times of pain. I thank God for such a gracious gift He has bestowed upon me with her.
WS: You mentioned that doctors and universities were interested in the 1-generation occurrence. Can you elaborate on that?
ERIC: There is some interest throughout the medical field because of my mother and myself both having the same illness. There are only about ten thousand cases of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the United States a year. Just to put that number into perspective, there are over 200,000 cases of breast cancer a year in the USA. Because of the 1-generation occurrence between my mother and I, we will undergo genetic counseling in the future.
WS: How do you feel now?
ERIC: I feel great! My medical specialists have done a wonderful job, allowing me to feel as normal as possible. Some days are tougher than others, however when I am not at my best, I try to stay as positive as possible. Throughout this process I have learned that my attitude toward my current “match” is half the battle.
WS: You must miss wrestling. How do you incorporate it in your life right now?
ERIC: Your right, I really miss wrestling! Having been forced to stop for such a long period of time has really put into perspective how much I truly love the sport. Right now, I expose myself as much as possible, going to practices or competitions; I try and surround myself with it.
WS: What has been the communication between you and the Lehigh staff?
ERIC: Before I was diagnosed I was sure that I had made the correct decision on where I was going to continue my education. Now Iâ€™m 100% confident in my choice to attend Lehigh University. The coaching staff has been extremely supportive during this process. The day after I was admitted into the hospital Coach Santoro and Coach Hughes traveled up to visit with me. They are people of deeply rooted character and integrity, and I look forward to having them as role models as I continue to grow as a wrestler and a person in my time at Lehigh.
Because of the current battle I am undergoing, and because of the fact that I am going to be off of the mats and my training routine has been on pause for such an extensive period of time, I will be deferring enrollment to Lehigh for the upcoming year. Coach Santoro and I both feel that it would be best to play it safe with my health for the near future and the break will allow me to re-focus as an athlete while I prepare to compete at the Division I level the next year.
WS: What can the wrestling community do to support you?
ERIC: The wrestling community is an extremely tight family. The outpouring of love and support from this “family” has been a true testament to the type of people in our sport. I can only ask for prayer from these wonderful people. I believe that the power of prayer is unable to be matched. Each night I pray that the Lord would lay a hand on each person who is praying for me in this time of difficulty.
WS: Add anything else you’d like to address.
ERIC: I would like to take this opportunity to extend a gracious thank you to the wrestling community. I thank each person who has been and is continuing to pray for me, support me financially, or simply sending words of encouragement. These acts of kindness help more than you could ever know.