Defying the odds

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NIC;s top golfer is cancer survivor

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - Ryan Carden, Colville, is the No. 1 golfer at North Idaho College on the school's first golf team in a number of years. The fact that he's the top player isn't nearly as significant as the fact that he's alive.

Seven years ago, he was a high school freshman in Coeur d'Alene trying to make the golf team. A year later, he was diagnosed with nose and throat cancer and fighting for his life. His mother, Sherri Hamley, tells of receiving a letter from the American Cancer Society telling her Carden had no hope, that there were no survivor stories to relate and no plan for treatment.

They weren't ready to accept that prognosis and contacted Dr. Judy Felgenhauer at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital and Providence Cancer Center in Spokane. Felgenhauer disagreed with the report and designed an aggressive series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She told Carden and his family she was confident the cancer could be overcome.

Armed with that hope, the treatments commenced.

''We almost lost him a couple of times,'' Hamley said. The cancer was near Stage 4 when it was discovered, so chemo treatments began immediately. He was just short of his 17th birthday when treatments started, and he spent the next four months in the most intensive chemo treatments possible.

''He had an IV port implanted in his chest and would spend five days straight in the hospital with an IV 24 hours a day,'' she commented. Throat cancer caused nutritional problems and his weight dropped to 112 pounds.

The eight-week radiation treatments that followed put him in ICU for two weeks. He was badly malnourished and all nutrition was provided by intravenous feeding. Returning home, he was in bed rest for five or six months struggling to sustain his weight.

''I was young and didn't want to know a lot about it,'' Carden said. ''Mom did all the research to find out everything she could. It was pretty hard on her, too. She hardly ever left the bedside, always there taking care of me. She'd stay strong around me, but when she was alone she would break down.''

But they got the cancer. He's been free of cancer now for five years.

He learned to play golf from his father, Gary Carden. Cancer caused him to put aside more strenuous sports and he returned to golf when his health improved, both playing and caddying for others.

When NIC began a golf team, it seemed almost like fate or destiny to Carden. He was encouraged to return to school and now his plans call for eventually getting a degree in business administration with minors in American Indian studies and American Sign Language. He's been hard of hearing since birth and has become fascinated with sign language, calling it a ''fun language.''

He is now president of the American Indian Student Alliance at NIC, where Evanlene Melting Tallow, Blood/Blackfeet, is his adviser.

''She's been a big help with anything from filling out financial aid forms, scheduling classes, whatever support I might need.''

Melting Tallow has similar words of praise for Carden.

''He's great. He's very determined. He's a great student. He would be an inspiration to my 15-year-old son and to others in the community. He's the kind of student who wants to grasp life. He wants to grasp academics, and he wants to work hard toward his goal. He just loves life. It's so precious to him and he's going for all its worth.''

Golf coach and athletic trainer Randy Boswell is equally enthused about Carden.

''I wish I had a lot more people like him. He's the most reliable, the most punctual, hardest working guy that I've met. He's always here early and takes pride in being early. He works very hard at his game and very hard at school. If we had more people like that it would make my job a lot easier for sure. He's almost like a second coach because I can trust him to make sure that everybody else is taking care of their business too.''