A decade after a rare brain tumor, a Minnesota student is about to graduate
KASSON, MINN. – Statistically speaking, Wyatt Deno shouldn’t have fooled around with his friends on Wednesday during his high school graduation rehearsal. He shouldn’t have been busy walking across the stage, shaking his teacher’s hand tightly and practicing to receive a diploma.
He shouldn’t be set to attend Minnesota State University at Mankato to become a social worker this fall.
Deno was diagnosed with a rare, malignant brain tumor when he was in second grade – the type most children don’t survive. At one point, doctors at the Mayo Clinic told her parents, Justin and Stacy, that she had less than six months to live.
But Deno survived and became a beacon of hope for his family and just about everyone he meets. Now 18, he will graduate from Kasson-Mantorville high school on Friday night more than a decade after beating cancer.
“I just like to share my story and give people positive thoughts,” he said. “I like to be a positive person. It’s just who I am.”
At 5 feet tall, Deno may seem a bit unassuming. He makes his bald head look more like a fashion choice than a by-product of the radiation therapy he underwent at age 7. Still, his family, friends and teachers say he is a source of positivity.
“He’s one of the most outgoing, friendly and positive people I’ve ever met,” said Kasson-Mantorville High School principal Trent Langemo. “You would be hard pressed not to interact with Wyatt and walk away with a smile.”
“So Many Emotions”
Deno’s family first suspected something was wrong when he passed out from heat stroke during summer camp in 2011, when he was 7 years old.
“I don’t remember much about it. I was just playing and then it happened,” Deno said.
Then came the horrible headaches, the kind that woke him up in the middle of the night, hurting him so much he was throwing up. The headaches wouldn’t stop, so a CT scan was scheduled shortly before Thanksgiving in 2011.
“That Sunday night he woke up, he had a terrible one and he was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,'” Stacy Deno said.
He was diagnosed with a primary neuroectodermal tumor (PNET) – a catch-all term to describe particularly rare and malignant types of brain tumours. About 1,000 people in the United States live with this tumor, which most often affects young children.
“The cure rate is quite low because it’s usually very aggressive, especially in the little ones,” said Dr. Jonathan Schwartz, pediatric neuro-oncologist at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center.
Deno’s tumor was particularly aggravating. Doctors couldn’t remove everything in surgery, and the tumor affected his thalamus – a key part of the brain that helps transmit sensory information. The average patient with that many problems has a greater than 70% chance of dying, Schwartz said.
Still, Deno responded to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. It took him nine months to go into remission while his family watched and prayed. He’s returned over the years for checkups, but it’s been more than a decade since there’s been any sign of a tumor, which Schwartz says likely means he’s cured.
“There were so many emotions, obstacles, problems…but ultimately, miracles,” her mom said.
Deno’s battles weren’t quite over. He missed almost all of second year, but he was able to catch up with tutoring from his teacher. He loved amateur wrestling since he started in kindergarten, but he couldn’t join the team anymore.
And he still dealt with the occasional problem – short-term memory loss, trouble concentrating and having a stroke while in eighth grade. True to form, he has missed two days of school and little has changed in his life except for the aspirin he takes daily.
He tried to join the high school wrestling team in the ninth grade, but couldn’t handle the stress it put on his head and neck. So he became the manager of the team.
He started going to outdoor retreats and camps for kids with cancer, mostly as a counselor, so he could lift the spirits of other kids facing their own struggles. He continues to enjoy the outdoors, whether it’s hunting or spending time with his family at their cabin on West Jefferson Lake near Elysian, Minnesota.
Deno isn’t as excited as his mother about graduating. Stacy Deno said she still remembers the doctor writing her son’s diagnosis on a whiteboard, wiping it with his sleeve, and telling him, “Don’t. Don’t. Google this.”
Still, she’s both excited and scared that Wyatt, the eldest of three children, is graduating and going to college. Although she is proud to see her boy become a man, she is still nervous about how Wyatt will adjust to college life, like any other mother.
“There were several occasions where I was moved, just realizing that this is a chapter that is over,” she said.
However, Wyatt is focused on a new goal. He loves working with children and hopes to become a Child Life Specialist, a kind of social worker who helps children and families through trauma and treatment, at Mayo Clinic. Just like the specialists who have helped him throughout his medical journey.
He’s already gaining experience: he worked as a teacher’s aide in his old sophomore class, and he continues to work at a daycare just across the street from the high school, playing puns and sweating as he plays with the kids under his responsibility. care.
“I’m like other kids who like to wear them,” he laughed.
His experiences will serve him well.
“Nobody understands what he’s going through better than someone who’s been through it themselves,” said Schwartz, who has treated Wyatt for the past three years.
For Deno, it’s just another mission to undertake.
“It’s been a long road and I’m ready for what’s next.”