Iowa Hawkeyes

Leukemia in remission for former Iowa wrestler Brandon Sorensen

Iowa 4-time All-American received outpouring of support after diagnosis in late November

Iowa assistant wrestling coach Ryan Morningstar, left, shakes hands with 149 pound wrestler Brandon Sorensen as he is re
Iowa assistant wrestling coach Ryan Morningstar, left, shakes hands with 149 pound wrestler Brandon Sorensen as he is recognized on Senior Day following a meet against Northwestern at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Sunday, February 4, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Brandon Sorensen wasn’t alarmed and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Sure, he felt a little ill, but figured it was a touch of the seasonal flu as the calendar was about to flip from November to December.

Discomfort, fatigue and even a bloody nose isn’t unusual or uncommon for wrestlers. Sorensen had experienced this in the past and conditioned himself to power through them all. Not even someone as gritty as Sorensen could ignore a bloody nose that lasted for two hours.

The 25-year-old visited the hospital and received the shocking news after multiple tests. He was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form of cancer in the blood and bone marrow, affecting white blood cells, that is more prevalent in children.

“At first, it was like, ‘No way. What do you mean?’ It was disbelief, for sure,” Sorensen said. “Once you get the news, you sit down and think about it. You’ve got nowhere to go except forward and I put all my energy into that going forward. It was about doing it instead of dwelling on it.”

Sorensen approached it with the toughness and tenacity that helped him become a four-time All-American and NCAA finalist for Iowa. He confirmed Thursday that he was considered in remission at the end of March and will continue treatment for the next few years.

“It’s a big relief,” Sorensen said. “The drugs are doing the job. Everything is going down the right path, staying strong and steady. Still moving forward.”

Sorensen was originally released from the hospital in mid-January, following a month-and-a-half stay.

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“His story has to be told, because he is the example,” Iowa Coach Tom Brands said in January. “He was never, ever, not once, a problem. Not one time.

“We never had a problem with him and that’s great leadership. That’s a great story to be able to tell young people.”

Sorensen didn’t realize anything was wrong during the early stages. He trained through times wrestling left him exhausted. The work ethic that endeared him to teammates, coaches and fans propelled him when the rigors of wrestling left him feeling less than ideal. He initially considered this one of those moments.

“That’s why I didn’t think it was anything crazy, because I’ve been super sore,” Sorensen said. “I’ve done that and trained through that. That’s what I was thinking it was. Maybe I was just a little under the weather, a little tired and needed some sleep. Then it just continued a little bit and then the bloody nose was a dead giveaway that I had to go get checked out.”

The early stages were like a whirlwind with medical personnel responding swiftly. His diagnosis came the day after Thanksgiving and he was already in the hospital by the time Brands discussed the situation during his weekly news conference the following Tuesday.

“It comes on quick and it spreads quickly,” Sorensen said. “You have to get on it right away.

“They drew some of my blood, checked it and looked at me. They said ‘that can’t be right. Let’s draw some more blood and let’s check again.’ They went to ‘we’re looking at this. We’d like to get on it as soon as we can.’”

Sorensen spent about six weeks in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy, including lumber punctures. The latter extracted fluid and injected chemo into the spinal column. It was unpleasant, but Sorensen handled it since patients much younger than him endure the same.

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“It’s definitely not my favorite,” Sorensen said. “This is technically a little kid’s disease, a cancer. Those little guys are doing it. They are going through it. I should be able to do it. It’s not fun, for sure.”

Sorensen said he received lots of support from his family, including his parents, Dwight and Julie, and aunts, uncles and grandparents. His girlfriend, Kelsey, remained at his side, sleeping on a foldout sofa bed in his hospital room for the duration of his stay.

He spent just about every holiday in the hospital. He received a boost when teammates spent Christmas Day with him. His parents brought sparling grape juice to ring in the New Year as well.

“They were always there,” said Sorensen, who also praised the assistance of UIHC doctors, nurses and staff. “They were always asking if I needed anything. I had a great support group.

“They’d go out of their way to make sure I was good and had everything I needed. … Just little things like that. They were always calling me, texting me, whatever. We celebrated it in our own little way.”

His coaches and teammates made regular visits. Sometimes the drop-ins were brief. Others were able to stay and talk for a couple hours at a time.

“He has a wrestling mind and we always knew that,” Brands said. “You sit with a guy in a hospital room and there’s more words that have come out of his mouth than ever before.

“You knew the mentality was there because of how he competed. He also is very good philosophy-wise, coaching, good communicating, principles and standards of what high-level living is all about. That’s why his numbers are going in the right direction.”

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Sorensen received an outpouring of support when the news of his battle was made public. Wrestlers, coaches and fans from across the country contributed to a gofundme page that generated more than $100,000 to help with medical expenses within the first week, including former Hawkeye and Fresno State Coach Troy Steiner, Wyoming two-time NCAA finalist and three-time All-American Bryce Meredith and Princeton Coach Chris Ayres. Iowa and HWC teammate Sammy Brooks even shaved his head as a sign of support for Sorensen.

The response was a product of the respect he had earned during his 127-victory career.

“We had no idea it was going to blow up to anything close than what it was,” Sorensen said. “It was amazing. People everywhere ... the wrestling community is fantastic.

“You can’t even put it into words. You can be wrestling against their team, their guy, they still want the best for you in life. It is a great community.”

Fundraising didn’t end there. Thinkiowacity.com helped distribute headbands designed by former Hawkeye Jeret Chiri with the #Sorensenstrong message. The bandanna was a trademark of Sorensen’s wrestling career, going back to his days as a four-time state champion for Denver-Tripoli, and gained his full support.

Fans donned the red, white and blue headbands during a home dual victory over Nebraska, while Hawkeyes like Spencer Lee and Pat Lugo wore them regularly the rest of the season.

“I loved the design,” Sorensen said. “I loved all the people and well wishes.

“It wasn’t that one night for the Nebraska dual. It was Lugo winning the Big Ten Championships in it. It was Lee wearing it the whole time. I actually was going to get treatment one day and saw someone wearing a headband. I went up and talked to them and said ‘nice headband. Appreciate the support. Thanks for everything.’ It was awesome.”

Sorensen was restricted after his release. His immune system was weakened, so he had to limit his exposure. He remained in a special unit, walking around or jumping on a stationary bike for physical activity.

Things are inching back to normal. He still has three stages of treatment over the next three years, wearing a PICC line to administer medicine. He continues to fight. He didn’t rule out a future return as a competitor but plans to remain around wrestling, regardless.

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“It’s definitely a consideration,” Sorensen said. “If not, I’ll always be around the sport one way or another. I guess we’ll see.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

 

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