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Teen making most of life after terminal brain cancer diagnosis

A picture of Tyler and his older sister Amber when they were younger. Submitted photo1 / 7
The tumor removed from Tyler Robertson's brain. Submitted photo2 / 7
The X-ray of Tyler Robertson's brain, revealing a brain tumor. Submitted photo3 / 7
Tyler Robertson's scar after brain surgery. Submitted photo4 / 7
Tyler Robertson, center, his mom, Cindy Robertson, left, and girlfriend Kaitlyn Nelsen. Submitted photo5 / 7
Tyler Robertson, left, with his girlfriend, Kaitlyn Nelsen, after brain surgery. Submitted photo6 / 7
Tyler Robertson goes through a procedure for a brain tumor. Submitted photo7 / 7

WEST FARGO, N.D.—Tyler Robertson sat emotionless as his girlfriend of nearly two years, his mother and his mother's cousin broke down in the doctor's office upon hearing the diagnosis.

The 19-year-old was doing the math in his head, where a tumor the size of a grapefruit was removed a week earlier. At best, he'd live to be 29 years old, at worst 24.

"So how long could I make it?" Tyler asked himself.

Just a couple weeks ago, the West Fargo high school graduate figured he'd go to his eye exam and head to work at Buffalo Wild Wings. He'd been working every day to save money to visit his girlfriend, who moved to Florida. He was also saving to return to North Dakota State University to study civil engineering.

Robertson figured he needed a new prescription. His eyes were becoming overly sensitive to light, he couldn't see out of his glasses, his vision was going black every once in awhile and he was having headaches. After looking at X-rays, the eye doctor recommended he visit the emergency room.

Robertson was going to brush it off, but the doctor told him to call his mom. Tyler ended up at the Essentia Health emergency room.

There, he received a neurological exam. An appointment was going to be scheduled the following Monday or Tuesday for his primary doctor. Mom Cindy pushed for an MRI.

"It was just a mom's gut feeling," Cindy said.

The MRI revealed a 9-centimeter tumor near the left frontal lobe. Had this been ignored any longer, Tyler could have had a seizure and died.

Tyler and Cindy were told they needed to go to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. An ambulance would have cost $4,000, so Tyler's older sister, Amber, drove while they monitored Tyler's speech and watched for seizures.

'I'm just keeping positive'

Doctors told Cindy that Tyler could come out of brain surgery a different person. She was to expect paralysis on his right side, anger issues and the possibility of him not speaking again.

Her boy, her baby, whose sense of humor she loved and wisdom beyond his years left her in awe, was just beginning to let her kiss him on the forehead without a fuss.

She told Tyler she wished it was her going into surgery instead of him. Tyler said, "I don't, mom."

The surgery was at 9:15 a.m., which Cindy will always remember because 915 was the address of her late mother's home in Grand Forks.

Cindy prayed in the chapel of the hospital during the surgery and she ran into Tyler as he came out of the ICU. She had told him to wink at her or give her a sign he couldn't talk when she saw him after the surgery, so she knew. She wanted to know he was still there.

She touched his arm and said, "You'd be so proud of me because I didn't cry." Cindy had been crying off and on every day since the eye exam.

"You didn't cry?" Tyler said with no hint of problems with his speech.

Cindy burst into tears.

"To hear his voice ... I picked up his girlfriend and ran down the hall," Cindy said.

The tears returned a week later in the doctor's office when Tyler, his girlfriend, mom and mom's cousin were told he had a high stage of Glioblastoma. It was treatable but not curable and Tyler was given 5 to 10 years to live.

"It's just gut-wrenching to think that somebody that looks perfectly normal and fine can be gone in 5 to 10 years," Cindy said. "He doesn't have any symptoms, nothing, even with the cancer itself. It didn't really hit until he lost his hair from radiation treatment. It doesn't hit you until he's sleeping, because then he looks so vulnerable, so fragile, even though he's not."

A GoFundMe account was started for Tyler. A benefit is scheduled Aug. 18 at the Village Inn in Fargo. People can go to any Gate City Bank and request to give to the Tyler Robertson Benefit account as well.

"I'm not sure there's really anything to learn from me," Tyler said. "I'm just keeping positive, keeping my head up. There's nothing I can do about it. I've already been dealt a hand of cards. It's how I play them that matters."

Tyler is a month away from being allowed to play hockey again and now wants to study physical therapy so he can help people through tough experiences. In-between, life will be radiation and plans for treatments.

The whole bucket-list thing is not for him.

"So much can happen in 5 to 10 years in the medical field," Tyler said. "Everybody dies. I'll live like I've been living anyway."

Chance of a lifetime

One dream has come true for Tyler. In February, the day after his 19th birthday, he bought two tickets to see Chance the Rapper on June 14 in Tampa, when he would be visiting his girlfriend. He paid nearly $400 for the two tickets but was unable to go to the concert because it was a week after his brain surgery.

On Friday, July 21, Tyler was shopping for Chance merchandise when he decided to try to reach out to the famous performer on Twitter. He tweeted his story to Chance, hoping to get some merchandise. That tweet has been retweeted more than 118,000 times.

"My phone would not stop buzzing," Tyler said. "It was crazy."

The next day Tyler had a direct message from Chance.

"Yo, sorry to hear you missed the concert," the message read. "You seem to be in good spirits in all this, which is honorable and inspiring. Can't imagine how you're doing it, but I appreciate that about you man."

Chance asked for Tyler's mailing address. Tyler said Chance is trying to fly him out to Chicago on Aug. 5, where the rapper will be performing at Lollapalooza.

"I had no idea it was going to blow up like that," Tyler said.

Cindy has just one thing on her bucket list.

"I'm believing in the doctors and scientists to come up with a cure for him because he's not the type of person we can lose," Cindy said. "He's a good, kind kid, and we can't lose him."

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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