Sept. 29, 2011
By Brad Rudner
Holly Hein is gearing up for a battle, but it's not the one the junior on the University of Michigan women's soccer team is used to.
Hein's battle doesn't involve running up and down a soccer field for 90 minutes with the wind in her face and her jersey being pulled every other minute. It doesn't involve shin guards, corner kicks or yellow cards.
This shouldn't even be happening. After spending the better part of the last year rehabbing from a knee injury, Hein came into the preseason in the best shape of her life. With her injury woes in the rearview mirror, she was finally primed for that breakout season.
Her coaches knew it. Her teammates saw it. She felt it.
But that was all derailed one late summer day.
Call it a blessing in disguise.
During surgery last October to repair a torn ACL in her right knee, an anesthesiologist noticed what seemed to be an abnormal lump on the right side of her neck. Hein was unaware of the mass -- it hadn't bothered her up to that point. There was no pain.
Fast forward four months. Hein was in the weight room lifting as part of her rehabilitation when suddenly both sides of her neck swelled up. After consulting with the team's athletic trainer, Tina Scully, Hein decided to see a doctor to get her neck checked out.
Blood was drawn to see if her hormone levels were off, and an ultrasound was done. The results came back fine. She was, by all accounts, normal. The doctors could not figure out what caused the swelling, but deep down, Hein knew something was wrong.
Summer came, and Hein returned to her hometown of Castaic, Calif., a town northwest of Los Angeles, where she continued to look into it. As the days passed, Hein lived her life normally, but before she returned to Ann Arbor for the start of preseason camp in late July, she decided to see a new set of doctors.
She went through the same tests, but with an added wrinkle -- the doctors performed a biopsy to try to figure out what caused her neck to swell.
Then, on Aug. 1, Hein got a phone call that she'll remember for the rest of her life.
She was back in Ann Arbor at this point, sitting alone in her house, when she received a call from her doctor in California, a call she had been expecting. What she wasn't expecting, however, was the news that she had papillary thyroid carcinoma, or thyroid cancer.
"I didn't know how to react," Hein said. "I was shocked, shaken. I don't remember all that much about what he said. You don't really think it's real until it's there, until someone tells you."
Papillary thyroid carcinoma is the most common form of thyroid cancer and is mostly found in younger women. The thyroid is a gland located at the base of the front of the neck and isn't visible to the naked eye. Its primary use is to regulate energy and metabolism throughout the body.
Fortunately, Hein's type of cancer is very treatable. More than three-quarters of patients who are diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma go on to lead normal lives with little risk of recurrence following treatment.
"The word 'cancer' is thrown around a lot," Hein said. "People hear the word and they think it's a death sentence. For me, the shock and fear came from hearing that term I was so familiar with, knowing that this isn't good. But once I learned more about it, you could almost call it a good diagnosis."
Once Hein got off the phone with the doctor, her mind raced. She wanted to know more, but she couldn't even Google it -- her computer had no battery.
Hearing the news was difficult enough, but Hein knew the most difficult part lay ahead.
How do I tell my parents? How do I tell my teammates?
She thought it best to take the direct approach.
"I told them straight out," Hein recalled of the conversation with her parents. "There was silence on the line for a moment."
A few minutes later, Hein received a call from her 15-year-old sister, Natalie. Holly's mother, Jane, had told Natalie the news and suggested she call her older sister. When Holly picked up the phone, Natalie was crying. Holly had no idea how explain it.
As it related to soccer, physically, Hein felt pretty good. She was cleared to play by her doctors, but that wouldn't be the case for very long. She had only known about the cancer for a week, but at some point, there were going to be questions about why she couldn't play and why she wouldn't be at the team's road exhibition at Dayton on Aug. 12.
So she decided to sit the four captains down, the four people she had played with for the extent of her career at Michigan, and broke the news.
Clare Stachel remembers it vividly. The team was in Traverse City for its now annual training camp and was taking a break from practice. Hein went to Scully's small room and called in Stachel, Haley Kopmeyer, Kristen Goncalves and Courtney Mercier.
None of them knew what to expect, but all four had looks of disbelief on their faces when they heard the news. How could someone who was as fit and healthy looking as Hein have cancer?
But Stachel couldn't help but feel another emotion -- sadness.
"For everything she's gone through the last two years, for this to happen, how can you not feel for her?" Stachel asked. "She couldn't play last year and hasn't played much this year. It was a heavy blow, but it put things into perspective for us."
"We were dumbfounded," Goncalves added. "It was the last thing we expected to hear. She was so on top of the world with her game and was playing out of her mind. It was hard for us to wrap our mind around it."
The team returned to Ann Arbor a few days later. That's when Hein went in front of the entire team. She took the same approach as with the others, but what made it difficult was the setting.
Surrounded by her 23 teammates, Hein went to the middle of the locker room. For the third time in a span of a week, she had to expose her cancer.
"When she got into the middle of the room, we thought, 'Oh my God, she's ready to quit,'" sophomore Tori McCombs said. "Then she dropped that on us. Nobody said a word. A couple of the girls were crying."
Once the initial shock wore off, Hein did her best to reassure her teammates that everything was going to be alright, that this was just a bump in the road.
Up to this point, she had only told a select few people about her cancer. Now, everyone knew. September just happens to be Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, so she felt this was as good a time as any to go public.
"It's not like I'm going to walk up to my teammates and be like, 'Hey, I just found out I have cancer,'" Hein said. "Talking about it provided a little bit of relief for me. It's not something I want or need to be secretive about, but that's just how it has been."
Everyone around the University of Michigan women's soccer team agrees that if you could describe Holly Hein in one word, chances are you'd hear some variation of the word "strength." She's got plenty of it.
"It was hard for me to think of something like this happening to someone as young and as healthy as Holly," Michigan head coach Greg Ryan said. "She's amazed me with her maturity, but even more so, it's the confidence she has to go through something like this and come out fine on the other side."
"Holly is a rock-solid, emotionally sound person," Stachel added. "Nobody on our team has even the slightest doubt about Holly because we all know she's the kind of person who's going to get through this."
When Ryan was hired to take over the Michigan women's soccer program prior to the 2008 season, he made Hein's recruitment a priority. She was the first player to commit to Ryan and commit to the new team.
She made an immediate impact, playing in 20 games with 19 starts as a freshman and scoring three goals, all game-winners. However, health issues the last two seasons have gotten in the way of Hein becoming a mainstay in Ryan's lineup.
The knee injury came first. Now this.
Yet Hein still wanted to play. She wanted to play for Michigan.
With her impending surgery on the horizon, Hein made the decision to limit herself to just six games this season in order to preserve her year of eligibility. She started in all of those games, first at midfield and later on defense.
She will sit out the remainder of the season to undergo post-op treatment and will take a redshirt year on the field. Her plan is to resume soccer activities in the spring with the team as a redshirt junior and have two years of athletic eligibility remaining.
Hein may not be at every game, but her presence will be felt. Beginning with tomorrow's game at Iowa, every member of the team will wear a teal armband with Hein's No. 21 embroidered on it. Her number and the thyroid cancer ribbon will also be placed on the team's warm-up shirts.
Prior to Tuesday's training session, the captains surprised Hein with a picture frame comprised of various shots of the team. One word in caps stands out in the middle: FAMILY.
In the top left corner of the frame is a poem from Pakenham Beatty, which was used by former football coach Lloyd Carr at his retirement press conference in 2007. It reads:
"By your own soul, learn to live.
If some men force you, take no heed.
If some men hate you, have no care.
Sing your song, dream your dreams,
Hope your hopes, and pray your prayers."
She practiced on Tuesday. On Wednesday, with less than 24 hours until her surgery, she was out there again.
"Every game she's played in this year, the girls have told her, 'Holly, we don't know what we're going to do without you.' I don't know what I'm going to do without her. I still don't," Ryan said. "It's impossible to replace a Holly Hein. She just plays too damn hard."
Hein is determined not to let her cancer stand in the way of playing the game she loves, or being with her teammates. Quitting was never an option.
"It never crossed my mind," Hein said. "It's not going to happen. I don't know much that would stop me from doing that."
Hein has done all she can this semester to try to live as normal a life as possible. That's not easy for a screen arts and cultures major who received just about every academic award there was to receive last season, including Academic All-Big Ten and Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, the latter requiring a minimum 3.7 grade-point average.
She insists preparation for her surgery is all about having a healthy mindset, and she's got one. With the surgical procedures she's had over the years, she's prepared for the struggles and challenges that await.
This surgery, though, is obviously a bit different, and that's where the nerves come into play.
"You have to know you're going to come out of it okay," Hein said. "You have to believe it. You have to have confidence in your doctors. I'm trying not to worry about it too much."
Hein is having the surgery today (Thursday, Sept. 29) at the University of Michigan Hospital, just two days before her 20th birthday. The doctors are going to remove Hein's entire thyroid gland (normally about the size of a strawberry, but in Hein's case, it's comparable to a small apple) as well as surrounding lymph nodes to ensure the cancer doesn't spread. She will spend the night at the hospital and plans to be discharged the following day.
The doctors have told Hein she should be able to resume normal activities in five to seven days, at which point she will return to class. Six weeks after her surgery, Hein will begin radio-iodine treatment for four weeks, designed to kill off the remainder of the thyroid.
Once the thyroid is removed, Hein will need to take thyroid replacement hormone every day for the rest of her life. Once her energy returns, she'll resume soccer activities. But she doesn't know when that will be.
"I may not be able to physically play, but I love the game," Hein said. "I want to keep learning here. Not being able to play, I think my tactical knowledge of the game has improved a lot over the last year, which has helped. Obviously, I'd rather be playing, but just being around the team will help me."
Michigan has only three more home games this season, the next coming on Saturday, Oct. 8, against Northwestern. Hein plans on being at all of them.
Ryan isn't surprised.
"Holly is such a soccer junkie," Ryan said. "She's determined to do whatever it takes to maximize her ability. If I know Holly, this won't slow her down at all. She's going to come back to us even better than she was before."