Casen Whitehead Returns To Running While Battling Leukemia

    Photo By Dan Loughlin

Holly Springs junior Casen Whitehead raced through the open grass decked out in his purple uniform top, spectators cheering him along. His encouraging teammates ran alongside him and paced him to the finish.

Whitehead collapsed after he crossed the finish line at Sugg Farm Park in Holly Springs, exhausted but jubilant.

"Even though he wasn't feeling great, he mustered a big smile for a few seconds," Holly Springs cross country coach Scott Meyers said.

Whitehead had just run 21:06.30 for 5k at a dual meet between Holly Springs and Apex Friendship, a time that qualified him to race for the Hawks at the SWAC Conference Championships on Oct. 23.

"I pretty much almost passed out when I finished," Whitehead said. "But I knew that I had to give it everything in order to qualify."

In a way, Whitehead was fortunate just to be up and running on his two feet. Two years ago, Whitehead began another kind of race-a race for his life. A leukemia diagnosis in the winter of his freshman year meant enduring numerous rounds of grueling chemotherapy and countless visits to the cancer center at UNC Children's Hospital. 

Needless to say, qualifying for the conference meet was just one of the many battles that Whitehead has faced over the course of his high school career. But Whitehead is not one to give up-he preaches perseverance, a quality that has helped him throughout his cancer battle and return to running. 

"I never thought negatively about [the leukemia diagnosis] and my whole process was to just go through it and think positive," Whitehead said.

Finding the right fit

Like most kids growing up, Whitehead tried his hand at countless sports to find his athletic specialty-soccer, lacrosse, baseball, you name it. None seemed to be the right fit.

In sixth grade, Whitehead met someone who ran on the local Holly Springs youth cross country club team, and he recommended that Whitehead give it a shot. He had never tried running before, so why not?

Whitehead did just that, and there was something about running that just clicked instantly.

"I fell in love with that," Whitehead said.

He continued to compete for the cross country club team up until high school, and he'd go on to make the Holly Springs team to begin his freshman year. A 19:11.70 season's best at the SWAC Conference Championships ranked him at the top among his freshman teammates.

Whitehead may have been, as Meyers called him, a floppy-haired, quiet freshman, but he was always a student of the sport. The serious attention he paid to perfecting crucial fundamentals-such as drills and pacing-helped him stand out among his teammates.

"Things weren't just numbers and drills to him," Meyers said. "He was always locked in on getting better and competing."

The Holly Springs coaches and Whitehead himself anticipated that he would follow up his successful fall with a solid indoor track season.

But almost immediately, something didn't seem right. 

Holly Springs coach Kimberly Henry first noticed the abnormalities during indoor tryouts. Whitehead struggled to meet the times his coaches expected him to hit in one-mile time trials and workouts. 

Whitehead could feel that something wasn't clicking. He would feel constantly out of breath while he ran. He had trouble completing the time trials, something that was out of character for him. As he kept running more time trials, it reached the point where Whitehead would have to walk the last lap of the mile or not finish.

"I was getting more tired than when I did my 19:11 5k," Whitehead said. "And I knew something was wrong."

Henry became particularly concerned when she noticed the pale, grayish appearance of Whitehead's skin. She pulled Whitehead aside after his fifth time trial to investigate the problem. Henry mainly asked him about his diet, and even spoke to his friends at school to confirm what Whitehead told her about his eating habits. Later that day, Henry phoned Whitehead's parents to inform them of what she thought was the root of Whitehead's health struggles: anorexia.

Whitehead's parents then decided it was time to pay the doctor a visit. The first doctor Whitehead visited determined that he looked perfectly healthy-not anorexic-and simply diagnosed him with exercise-induced asthma. But Whitehead's mother wasn't satisfied with that answer, so she pushed for a blood test to be performed. She took her son to see her primary care doctor a month later in January 2018 for the blood work.

Two weeks later, a phone call came from the doctor. 

Whitehead needed to go to UNC Hospital right away. 

"[The doctor] pretty much told [my mom] flat out that I might bleed out," Whitehead said.

The blood tests showed abnormalities, so Whitehead and his family urgently rushed to the hospital that night. At two in the morning the next day after a night of tests, Whitehead received shocking news from his oncologist: he had leukemia.

Leukemia is a cancer of blood-forming tissues, usually involving the white blood cells. It hinders the body's ability to fight infection.  

Like all parents, Whitehead's parents expressed extreme worry for their son, knowing the tough road that would come next. But Whitehead tried to not let the serious diagnosis phase him. He knew it would be a struggle to fight the disease, but believed he could win the battle. 

"I knew that my life was going to change because of it and that I was going to have to go through a long process to get back," Whitehead said.

Grace under pressure

What came next for Whitehead was a medical whirlwind. Whitehead's first week in the hospital was consumed by visits from countless doctors and informative sessions on the leukemia treatment process. He underwent more MRIs and brain scans to look for any other underlying physical problems, which there weren't. Doctors mapped out the chemotherapy process and explained to him that he might lose his hair. They even suggested to Whitehead that he take a year off from school to ride out the intense chemotherapy treatments, but Whitehead refused-he wanted to graduate on time with his friends and classmates. 

Whitehead returned home after a weeklong stay at the hospital, and from there he paid visits to UNC Children's Pediatric Cancer Center every week for a year. Each week, he would receive chemotherapy, often in his spine, ranging anywhere from one four-hour treatment to two 30-minute rounds on any given day. Doctors also drew blood for labs to make sure his treatment was going as planned. Whitehead would even receive a lumbar puncture (LP) on some days to make sure there were no leukemia cells hiding in his spinal cord.

His hair fell out, but just like with the rest of his treatment, Whitehead, stayed positive. Instead of wearing a hat or something to cover his head, he embraced his bald head, almost as a way to symbolize his fight.

To describe leukemia in one word, Whitehead characterizes it as plain disgusting. Fatigue and chemo treatments go hand in hand. Then there's the nausea and headaches that make it worse. Imagine experiencing that pain for over a year-Whitehead fought through it and excelled.

Despite the physical pain, Whitehead put all of his focus into his school work. He didn't physically attend school during parts of his freshman and sophomore years, but Whitehead completed his schoolwork online. Not competing in athletics allowed him to spend more time focusing on academics, and he earned straight A's while learning from home. 

"I strive for excellence when it comes to academics," Whitehead said. "I'm the kind of person that wants to get all A's and I wanted that to continue."

He tried to lead as normal of a life as he possibly could-and he excelled doing so. Earning straight A's and keeping a positive outlook are no easy tasks given the circumstances, but Whitehead stayed determined. "I'm still the person I am even with this diagnosis and I wasn't going to let that affect me," Whitehead said.

Determination and a comeback

Slowly but surely, Whitehead began to receive less and less treatments and his condition improved. Come second semester of sophomore year, doctors gave him the good news that he would be allowed to return to school full-time. 

With his return to school earlier this year came his determination to return to what he loves: running. Whitehead joined in on an offseason cross country conditioning program that Meyers ran during the spring, aiming to build his strength is hopes of making the team in the summer.

But it certainly was not a smooth transition back into running. After the year off from running, Whitehead had to work to get back into shape. "It was obviously a rough start getting back into things and I was obviously the slowest person that did that program," Whitehead said.

Summer workouts followed in June, and in order to make the Holly Springs team, Whitehead had to hit a certain mark in a three-mile time trial. For him, he had to run sub-22:10. Each week during the summer, runners had the chance to run the time trial and hit the qualifying times.

Whitehead ran just north of the qualifying time on his first two attempts, only off by 10 seconds on the second try. Finally, he made the team on his third attempt.

"It took him until his final attempt, but he did it," Meyers said. "I guess seeing his will through all the other[s], I should have never doubted him."

Almost immediately, Whitehead became somewhat of a role model on the team. He never complained, even when a tendinitis diagnosis in August set him back a month in his return to running. Whitehead fought through that setback just like all his other previous physical battles-with patience and hard work. 

All that determination throughout the season came to fruition with that draining race back at Sugg Farm in October. 

After that landmark race, Meyers took to Twitter, posting a picture of Whitehead surrounded by teammates along with a written paragraph detailing the struggles the young runner had been through in the past year and a half. Numerous admirers saw the tweet and retweeted and liked it, showing their support and pride for Whitehead.

But all that mattered to Whitehead was that he was given the chance to run again, and he continues to make the most of it as those around him admire his resilience.

"He was happy to be back doing what he loved and that was the type of role model that he became," Meyers said. "Casen led in silence without realizing he was leading."

A continuing struggle

Whitehead may have returned to running, but the battle still isn't over. He still undergoes chemo treatments to this day, but he receives it orally every four weeks. LP spinal taps come every 12 weeks. 

However, he has not been battling alone-his Holly Springs teammates and coaches have been right by his side.

His team carried on what is called "Casen's Crusaders," a support group of sorts for Whitehead that was first started by friends of Whitehead's parents. They printed shirts with the group name on it to sell as a fundraiser, and simply just used the group as a way to express to Whitehead that he was not in the fight alone. 

"Just as Casen had shown determination in his running, his teammates did the same to support him," Whitehead said. "His teammates really showed what being teammates is all about."

Going forward, Whitehead has big goals for his future; he hopes to earn all A's in high school, possibly follow a pre-med track in college, and run collegiately at some point. If Whitehead's mentality during his leukemia battle is any indication of how he'll approach reaching his goals, he will be sure to succeed.

Although his chemo treatments are milder now and he is running again, Whitehead still knows that anything could happen to his health on any given day that he goes to the cancer clinic. But as always, he'll continue to strive with the determination and fighter's mentality that has led him to success in school, running, and life.

"I always have that goal that even if something bad happens that I will fight through it and that I will continue to fight through the cancer journey even until the end," Whitehead said.