FORT MILL — Tennis player Chase Mahrlig, 17, is used to one-on-one challenges on the court.
But the Nation Ford junior recently faced the challenge of his life when he beat cancer.
Chase’s life was turned upside down within a matter of hours one day last November, when test results found masses in his lungs, lymph nodes and a testicle.
Then 16-years-old, he first noticed swelling in his left testicle while showering, but didn’t think much of it.
“It wasn’t painful at all,” he said.
He finally told his parents, who took him to a doctor. Still active on the tennis court, Chase even had a tennis lesson with his personal coach, who is also Nation Ford boys’ head tennis coach Billy McKinney, the day before he went to the doctor.
“We were doing lessons at 5 o’clock and the next day he is having emergency surgery,” McKinney said.
Chase never felt sick prior to the diagnosis, but the swelling testicle was enough.
“I was pretty shocked. It was a whirlwind kind of a day,” he said. “A lot of thoughts were going through my head. I thought about dying. Then I thought about wanting to get through it.”
The diagnosis was on Nov. 14 between 8 and 9 a.m. By 3 p.m. that same day, Chase was going under the knife to have his left testicle removed.
“They characterized it as an aggressive cancer,” said his mother Christin Mahrlig. “He had three fairly large tumors in his abdomen and on his lung.”
Initially, Christin and the family were hoping for the best when they talked with the doctors.
“I was thinking it was maybe a hernia, an infection or a benign cyst, but then they came in and said it had spread, the room started spinning,” she said. “When you’re the parent, you have to be strong and I can’t break down. I have to be there for my child. I have to find a way to keep going.”
The surgery was at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte. From there, it was the beginning of another long road.
“I was looking forward to the first surgery and getting it over with,” he said. “I just wanted to start the whole process.”
Coming out of surgery, Chase faced four rounds of chemotherapy, with each round lasting three weeks. It was then that reality started setting in for Chase and his family.
“During my recovery, I couldn’t wait to get back out on the tennis courts,” he said. “I would go to the matches and wish I was playing.”
Chase started playing tennis when he was 9 and was slated to be Nation Ford’s No. 1 singles player this season. He didn’t like the sport at first, but it slowly grew on him, challenging him both physically and mentally.
“I like the one-on-one aspect of how it’s just you and the other person,” he said. “You don’t have to rely on a team so much. I like the mental aspect of it and the strategy. It takes talent and skills, but you also have to be athletic. It’s the physical aspect and the mental game, all combined into one.”
Mahrlig said the mental aspect of tennis and thefocus needed on the tennis court helped when it came to his diagnosis and treatment.
“I think I had a strong mental game and it just carried over,” he said. “I really didn’t get down I guess. I started out going one day at a time. My family support was big.”
There are about 8,900 cases of testicular cancer a year in the U.S. Of those, about 6 percent are teens. Midway through his chemotherapy treatment, the Mahrlig family switched from Presbyterian Hospital to Levine Children’s Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center.
His first two rounds of chemotherapy was an inpatient procedure at Presbyterian Hospital, but he was able to do it as an outpatient at the CMC-Pineville infusion center once he switched hospitals.
“I would go early in the morning and then come back home,” Mahrlig said. “It was a better environment than being in the hospital. I felt more tired and sickly being at the hospital.”
His mom Christin became an advocate for her son and his health.
“One thing I found out as a parent is that you have to learn,” she said. “You can’t just be relying on the doctors. You have to learn it.”
Not satisfied with how her son’s treatment was going and wanting the best treatment for him, Christin started searching Internet message boards looking for other opinions after the second round of chemotherapy. They all pointed her to one person – Dr. Lawrence Einhorn.
Einhorn pioneered the development of life-saving treatment for testicular cancer in the 1970s, raising the survival rate from 10 percent to 95 percent. He is also known for having treated other athletes with cancer – former professional cyclist Lance Armstrong being the most well-known.
Christin emailed Einhorn on a Saturday explaining her son’s cancer and by Sunday the doctor had emailed her back inviting her to Indiana to consult with him.
“He said he would be glad for us to come up and do a full second opinion,” she said.
Chase said he felt reassured when he started consulting with Einhorn.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “I knew that I was in the best hands possible.”
After the family flew to Indiana and started consulting with Einhorn, the doctor started consulting with Charlotte doctors on the best treatment.
Christin said seeing her son taking chemotherapy was the toughest part of the experience.
“There is so much that is unknown,” she said. “You don’t know if it’s working. That first part was real tough. I didn’t know how he would react to the chemo, because most people get real sick. As it goes on you learn how to deal with it, but in the beginning there is so many unknowns. It’s scary.”
Throughout the chemotherapy treatments, Chase suffered from fatigue and some hair loss, but not much more physically, he said. However, he and his family still had an emotional journey to take.
After the chemotherapy there were more test to make sure the tumors were gone. Tests showed the chemotherapy did its job – for the most part. There was one spot in Chase’s abdomen that cast doubt.
Cancer won the first set by taking a part of Chase. But with the support of his friends, family and doctors, he fought back to win the second set through chemotherapy.
Now, Chase was going to a third set with more unknowns ahead. He needed a second surgery to explore the suspicious spot and possibly more chemotherapy. For Chase, this was the scariest part of the whole ordeal.
“The second surgery was a pretty big surgery and I was hoping once I got through the chemo, it would be done and gone,” he said.
The surgery revealed that what was thought to be more tumors in Chase’s stomach and lymph nodes turned out to be harmless dead tissue.
It was a third set winner for Chase.
“My final big sigh of relief was when I got the second biopsy back and all I had to do was recover from the surgery,” he said.
Back on the court
Chase had the second surgery March 4 and was recently given a clean bill of health. He knows he still has to be watched carefully by his doctors. He has follow-ups every two months for the first year with blood work and chest X-rays. Then every four months the second year and every six months for every year after that.
However, for now, his doctors said he could resume all normal activities. For Chase, that was getting back on the tennis court.
“I hadn’t been on a court for so long,” he said. “I had been at the hospital or at my house. It felt weird.”
Chase has gotten back into the swing of things by playing doubles matches and is working his way back up the team rankings to play singles competition. This past week he was playing at the No. 3 singles position for Nation Ford.
“I hope I can contribute and help my team in the playoffs a little bit,” he said.
Nation Ford opens the playoffs in May and with Chase on the comeback trail, the lessons he learned from beating cancer may help his team.
It has certainly helped him.
“I have become stronger, especially mentally,” he said. “It’s a lot to experience when you are young.”
Even though he hasn’t been on the court for the majority of the season, McKinney said Chase has still contributed to the team this year.
“We didn’t really anticipate him being back. To us it’s a miracle. He put everything into perspective for us between life and tennis,” McKinney said. “More importantly life and how we take so many things for granted. More than anything else it taught us to be thankful for every given moment.”