Weiland Torkelson is a warrior. The 10-year-old played offensive right tackle for the Junior Football League Pontiac Chiefs team last year and also beat Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma with the help of Dr. Sarah Strandjord, his main physician at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Peoria.
From the moment Kristi Wright, a fifth grade teacher at Washington Elementary School, found out Torkelson was enrolled in her class, she wanted to do something to show her support. After talking with Torkelson’s parents, Andy and Starlette Torkelson, Wright — a mother and 18-year teaching veteran— ordered 500 orange bracelets inscribed with the words “Weiland’s Warriors” and a little football, an addition made by Torkelson’s peers in Wright’s class, which were sold for a $1 each until they sold out.
“They are just orange bracelets, but they show support and that people are thinking about me,” Torkelson said. “I think it’s pretty cool that so many people support me.”
Torkelson was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma only three weeks after his 10th birthday in April. A month or two prior to his diagnosis, he recalls feeling some chest pain.
“It felt like heartburn,” The 10-year-old said. “That’s what I initially thought it was. It even went away for a while, but then my stomach started hurting. We went to OSF Saint James-John W. Albrecht Medical Center and got it checked out. We were sent that day to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and I was admitted for the night to see what it was. The next morning I found out. I was kind of nervous when I found out, but I gave my dad a hug and told him it would be o.k.”
Andy Torkelson remembers after the doctor left, he was visibly shaken up to find out his oldest son had cancer.
“Here we are finding out Weiland has cancer and my son is the one telling me everything is going to be okay,” Andy Torkelson said. “He’s a pretty strong guy, a really strong guy.”
The family found out a tumor was spreading all over the boy’s abdomen. Doctors said if they had to put a size to it, it would have been about the size of a basketball. The treatment plan is particularly quick and aggressive because the tumor comes on so quickly too.
“It’s a progressive tumor, it was doubling in size every 12 hours,” Starlette Torkelson said. “When they diagnosed it, the tumor was 12-inches long.”
The National Cancer Institute says Childhood Hodgkins lymphoma is more common in males than in females. Data on diagnosed cases of Burkitt’s lymphoma between 1992 and 2008 indicates there were two cases for every 1 million people per year and with current treatments, more than 80 percent of children and adolescents survive.
Page 2 of 3 - “It’s a blood cancer, it’s not hereditary and it’s such a rare thing,” his mother said. “It’s not something doctors think of right away, but when they saw his stomach getting bigger, they rushed us over there. So, we did and we’ve been through seven rounds of chemo since April.”
Doctors recently told the family everything looks dead and calcified. The next step is to see if Weiland will need surgery to take out the dead cells. Due to the fact that the tumor is all over his abdomen, the family says if they can leave it, that could be an option.
“When I think of a tumor, I think of something round and easy to extract, but his is not round,” Wright said. “If he had surgery, it wouldn’t just be a simple go in and take it out, it would be more of an intense surgery. My goal was to share all the positives with the kids. From the beginning, the kids were really scared and I think they are getting more hopeful. It’s an extra lesson they wouldn’t otherwise get.”
This year, Weiland was unable to play football, however, the JFL team that he would be on had him come out, gave him a jersey with his former jersey number and had him lead the team out on to the field as a team captain for their game against Metamora during the beginning of the season.
“He goes out to the center of the field there to meet the captains from the other team and when he got to the center of the field, every single player and coach on the other team walked out and shook his hand,” his father said. “That was pretty neat. All the parents were crying.”
The family has only lived in Pontiac for two years after moving from Morris and they say the support has been overwhelming. Although the bracelets only cost $1, some students have paid $20 for a bracelet, or $5 for two. The money received is used for the trips made by the family from Pontiac to Peoria.
“The oncology unit at St. Jude’s handles all the cancer cases for children,” Starlette Torkelson said. “They cover everything that our insurance doesn’t, but gas can get expensive. When he was first going for all the treatments, he’d be there for five weeks at a time. I am still working and we kind of switch off and make lots of trips back and forth because we both want to be there with him.”
After selling out of the bracelets Wright purchased 300 more, which are currently on sale. Anyone who would like to show support is encouraged to contact Wright or second grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School to purchase a bracelet. District #429 Superintendent Kevin Lipke and Washington Grade School Principal Josh Delong have also advertised the bracelets on the school’s Facebook page.
Page 3 of 3 - “We are now international,” Wright said. “I saw a picture on Facebook of someone in Germany wearing a Weiland’s Warriors bracelet. I am proud of him as a young man; some of us will never face what he’s facing right now. To get through you have to be courageous and strong. Weiland has taught me you have to fight thought some bumpy roads in life, but you have to come out strong.”