KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Lukas Hafner’s helmet tells a story.
The goalie for the Western Michigan Broncos hockey team has dreamed of being a college athlete since he was old enough to tie his own ice skates.
“It’s a dream come true, to be honest with you. Growing up, I always wanted to play college hockey,” he said.
It was a dream he shared with his father, who was an All-American in football when he was in college.
“He was very involved,” Hafner said of his father’s role in his hockey career.
For the better part of a decade, Todd Hafner drove his son from their home in Toledo, Ohio, to his practices with the Compuware travel program in metro Detroit.
“It’s about an hour there, an hour back, so just those memories; spent a lot of time telling stories,” Hafner said. “Definitely the best time of my life.”
In the spring of 2012, just as Hafner was trying to find a college, his father started experiencing back pain and went to see a doctor.
“He thought he had kidney stones, just thought he was going in for a normal checkup,” Hafner said.
Instead, Todd Hafner was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“He was so strong that it just seemed like this is just something that he’ll just deal with and everything will be normal,” Hafner said.
But just a month to the day after his diagnosis and only three months before Western Michigan University offered Lukas Hafner a chance to live his dream, Todd Hafner died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 49.
“I think it was more difficult as time went on and I was at home all summer and you kind of realize he’s not there anymore,” Hafner said.
Dr. Michael Zakem of the Cancer Center at Metro Health never knew Todd Hafner, but he has treated many other pancreatic cancer patients.
“Part of the problem with pancreatic cancer is there are no early warning signs,” Zakem said. “There are no screening tests, like for breast cancer, colon cancer … so the vast majority of people with pancreatic cancer do present with extensive metastatic disease.”
Not only is it one of the few forms of cancer for which the survival rate hasn’t improved much over the past 40 years, but the number of cases in the U.S. has also nearly doubled to almost 50,000 annually.
“The vast majority of people, there really aren’t identifiable risk factors. So you can’t modify what you can’t identify,” Zakem said.
According to the American Cancer Society, pancreatic cancer has the highest mortality rate of all major cancers, with 94 percent of patients dying within five years, 74 percent in the first year and an average life expectancy after diagnosis of only three to six months.
“I think it’s kind of overlooked as far as all the other cancers,” Hafner said. “It’s just such a high fatality rate.”
He has now become an advocate to create awareness — both off and on the ice. The mask he is wearing for his senior season honors his father.
“I just thought it would be a great way for my senior year to just kind of pay thanks to him,” Hafner said.
The helmet is painted with a mural of Hafner, his father and his grandfather hunting, which he remembers as some of the best times in his life, and the number 55, which his father wore when he was an All-American at Bluffton University.
“Then his nickname was Rock, so I have the phrase, ‘like a rock,'” he showed 24 Hour News 8.
The helmet also bears the initials of Hafner’s father, mother and sisters, as well as the purple pancreatic cancer ribbon.
“There aren’t advocacy groups for pancreatic cancer,” Dr. Zakem said. “I think some of that’s because you don’t have this large population of long-term survivors like you do in breast cancer, prostate cancer, so you don’t have a lot of the advocacy to make people aware of it, because unfortunately the prognosis has been so dismal.”
Lukas Hafner, meanwhile, knows his father would be proud of where he is now.
“I think he’d have a permanent smile on his face for sure,” Hafner said.
That’s what allows him to keep a smile on his face nearly every day as he takes his father on the ice with him.