Rossville student in “dawg fight” against cancer

Rossville student in “dawg fight” against cancer
Updated: Mar. 9, 2023 at 9:59 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Leo Wehrli loves football.

“I just love the sport. I love the people around it,” the 16-year-old Rossville High School sophomore said. “Everyone has a job and you can do it right.”

The opponent for this Rossville Bulldawgs game plan these days is cancer.

“You gotta put your head down and just push through it,” Leo said. “That’s what I do during football when stuff gets hard, and I knew that’s what I was gonna have to do with cancer, because this is gonna be a long thing.”

It all started with a cough last November. His mom, Pam, says they went to the doctor and everyone thought it was a virus. But it didn’t get better.

“The cough just got worse and worse. It was deeper,” she said.

“It didn’t hurt, but once I got to school, I found out it was really loud,” Leo said. “Everyone would look over (at me).”

They went back to the doctor in January. Doctors did a chest x-ray and discovered a more than 12-centimeter tumor in his chest. That was on a Sunday. Stormont Vail transferred him to Children’s Mercy, where they did a biopsy that Monday, and the next day they got the news. Leo had a germ cell tumor, a fast-growing cancer.

“The tumor was so large that it was blocking his oxygen,” Pam said. “They say, ‘Do you have any questions,’ and everything’s just going through your mind, like, ‘How did this happen to him? What did I do wrong?’”

Leo immediately started intense, in-patient chemotherapy. Leo says the worst part has been staying home, away from school and friends. But he also started to lose the thick head of dark hair for which he was known. When it started falling out, he asked a retired man who volunteered at the hospital to shave it all off.

“I just didn’t want to see the hair fall out. It was long and I liked it,” Leo said. He took off his stocking cap to show how it’s starting to grow back, adding the video might be a surprise for his friends, who hadn’t seen him without the hat.

Leo’s older brother shaved his head in solidarity. It’s just one way Leo’s family, and the entire Rossville and surrounding communities are showing support.

“The football team got together and designed a bracelet that says Leo’s Dawg Fight on it, and sold those to anybody in the community or anybody that wanted them,” Pam said.

She said the bracelet effort raised more than $2,000 on top of other fundraisers people organized for them.

“It means a lot,” Leo said. “It helps get through it. It let’s me know that people are here to support me and that they want to see me get better.”

The family also is grateful for their medical team. Thanks to the partnership between Stormont Vail and Children’s Mercy, Leo is able to get some chemo treatments at Topeka’s Cotton O’Neil Cancer Center. It saves Pam, who is a single mom, from having to take additional time off work for the drive to Kansas City. She said her employer is very supportive, but she still doesn’t want to miss more than she has to.

Dr. Mehmood Hashmi, an oncologist with Stormont Vail, said the hospital system has many partnerships with Children’s Mercy for pediatric specialty services beyond what they can provide, not just oncology, but also neurology and other areas. He said it gives people access to expertise, while also allowing for supportive services to be available closer to home.

“(Cancer) has an affect on their whole day-to-day life. Financial toxicities are there (too), so there are many ways by doing this kind of partnership you can reduce the burden, whether it’s a medical burden, financial burden or even physical or psychological burden, you can decrease it on the patient and the family,” Dr. Hashmi said.

Family is what it’s all about. Leo came into Pam’s care as a foster child when he was three years old, and she’s since adopted him and his sister.

“I think that I was put in the situation that I was put in, because Leo needed somebody to be on his side, and that’s what I’m there for,” she said.

Leo agrees.

“Family is meant to be there for each other, and she really takes that to another level by helping me,” he said.

Leo has another round of in-patient chemo ahead. It’s hoped the tumor then will be small enough to remove, so Leo can get back on the football field - and back to the original game plan.

“(Returning to football) will mean things have gone back to normal and we can go win a state championship,” he said with a smile.

“Please keep praying because we’re not through,” Pam said. “We’ll make it through this ‘dawg fight’ together.”

You can support Leo’s Dawg Fight through their GoFundMe page which you can find here. Contributions also can be sent to the Leo’s Dawg Fight fund at any Bank of the Flint Hills location, including 117 US Hwy. 24, Rossville, KS 66533.