October 21, 2013

Belgrade teen makes plans for wedding, child, life while fighting cancer

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

BELGRADE — Damon Haggan is only 18, but he is trying to arrange for a wedding, a child and a legacy — all the challenges of adulthood — as quickly as he can.

click image to enlarge

Damon Haggan, 18, of Belgrade was diagnosed with terminal mesothelioma in May. He plans to marry his girlfriend of two years in November.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

A costly disease

Damon Haggan, 18, of Belgrade has been diagnosed with stage 4 mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the internal organs. Mesothelioma is rare, occurring in one of 100,000 people.

His medical care is covered by insurance, but his family is struggling to pay associated costs, such as the unpaid time off for travel to medical centers in Boston. He is also seeking support for his wedding, planned for November.

The family asks donors to send contributions to the Damon Haggan Cancer Fund at TD Bank, or to donate online at www.gofundme.com/damon-haggan-mesothelioma.

The urgency, which would be out of place in most young men his age, stems from a cancer diagnosis he received just weeks ago.

Until recently, Haggan’s life and thoughts were focused on his passions — the girls he’s kissed, the cars he’s owned, the animals he’s hunted, the bones he’s broken, the fish he’s caught, and the speeds he’s attained on motorcycles and snowmobiles.

“A Jeep Cherokee, that was my first car. It was nothing but a piece of junk,” he said earlier this month, sitting on the couch in his living room.

Wearing a hunting cap with a large fish hook through the brim, he continued talking about his first car between sips from a water bottle of blue Gatorade, which he said is the only drink he can keep down.

“I could stick my fingers through the frame, so I got the money back for it, got to keep it, sold it for junk. Then I got an ’88 Chevy with nine inches of lift with 33s on it, so I used that as my toy for a while. Then I just got rid of that, and now I’ve got a ’94 Jeep Wrangler with six inches of lift with 33s on it,” he said.

Things changed when Haggan was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer that attacks the linings of the internal organs. Haggan’s cancer is stage 4, which means it has already spread throughout his body.

Now, he’s forced to deal with a new set of experiences — the liters of fluid he’s had drained from his lungs, the painkillers he’s swallowed, the biopsies he’s endured, the ambulance rides he’s taken, and, most importantly, the number of months he’s got to live.

Haggan graduated from high school a year early and entered the military for a few months at the age of 17 before receiving an honorable medical discharge for a shoulder injury suffered during combat training.

So far, he has continued to hunt partridge, turkey, duck, rabbit and goose, among other things.

“Whatever the season’s open for,” he said.

He looks healthy — until recently he thought nothing of going for a 12-mile run. He wears a serious expression on his naturally pale face, his short-cropped fair hair mostly hidden beneath the hunting cap. His illness only becomes apparent when he pulls up his T-shirt, exposing tubes that drain the fluid accumulating in the remaining sections of his lungs.

Before the tubes were inserted, doctors drained 6.5 liters, more than 13 pounds, of fluid out of his lung and abdomen.

At that point, no one seemed to know what was wrong with him. He had a biopsy done on the swollen lymph nodes in his neck, but at first, the diagnosis — mesothelioma — seemed so unlikely in a person so young that doctors thought it might be an incorrect lab result.

Further biopsies on his stomach and sides confirmed the presence of cancer.

Haggan said he tries to ignore the diagnosis, in the same way the lifelong risk-taker has ignored other risks in the pursuit of excitement.

Sitting beside him, his mother, Dawn Nalley, who works as a nanny in Waterville, said she knew Haggan was a thrill-seeker when he was just 6 and the family lived in Strong.

“Out behind our home, there was a cliff, and he thought his bike was going to jump it,” she said.

(Continued on page 2)

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