James Wood's Hua thriving in pool despite cancer treatments

WINCHESTER — For about four minutes and 30 seconds, Dawn Truong had no problem keeping her composure as she spoke about her son Brian Hua and how he’s handled his life since being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer in November.

Her eyes welled with tears though when the subject of the community’s support of Hua was broached.

“It meant a lot,” said Truong on Wednesday at Jim Barnett Park’s War Memorial building pool.

At the City-County Sprints meet at the same location on Dec. 6, swimmers at each of the four Winchester-Frederick County high schools sported temporary tattoos of cancer ribbons with the phrase “#Huastrong.”

As the comments of those who know him indicate, that Twitter-based message used to describe the James Wood senior swimmer could not be more appropriate.

Hua’s strength can be seen his leadership qualities, his desire to help others, his work in school, and his performance in the pool. He was selected to The Winchester Star all-area swimming team in both his sophomore and junior years, and last year he was one of only four area boys to compete individually at the Class 4 state meet.

His strength of spirit is probably the most impressive part about him, though.

For the most part, Hua’s in a good place right now. He was cleared to swim with James Wood shortly after the City-County Sprints. Hua currently ranks second among area swimmers in the 100-meter backstroke and 50-meter freestyle, this despite only competing in each of those events once this year.

On Dec. 27, Hua’s circumstances became significantly better. A scan of his body on that date revealed that his Hodgkin’s lymphoma is gone. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer in which cells in the lymphatic system grow abnormally. The lymphatic system is part of the immune system.

But Hua’s still not done with the chemotherapy treatments that are administered to make sure his cancer is completely eliminated. The process has forced him to battle sickness and fatigue and kept him from attending school since November, even though he’s still been keeping up with his studies at home. And Thursday’s meet against Clarke County was just the second one he was able to able to compete in as a result of his treatment schedule and the effects of his treatment. (Hua has missed two meets since his return.)

“I try not to make a big deal of it because I know there are people who have been through a lot worse,” Hua said. “This is one of the most treatable cancers. It can always be worse. I try to stay positive most of the time.”

When Hua’s around a pool, he definitely doesn’t find it hard to stay positive.

Hua began swimming competitively when he was 8. He said he also tried soccer and tennis when he was around that age, but the way he felt while playing those sports didn’t compare to what it was like for him in the pool.

“I just love being in the water,” Hua said.

Hua had plenty of friendly competition to help push him growing up — his cousins are Sherando standouts Mathew and Peter Pham, a senior and sophomore, respectively.

Prior to high school, Hua’s best event was the breaststroke, but when he got to high school the 100 butterfly became his forte. Brian came to enjoy the power it takes to be an effective butterfly swimmer.

“The amount of time he puts into it really helps him excel,” said James Wood coach Alan Cavanagh of Hua, a year-round swimmer who has competed with Valley Swim Team Phoenix and the Sherando Sharks in USA Swimming over the years. “His technique is pretty solid.”

Hua’s 100-meter butterfly times have gone from 1:04.99 as a freshman (third in the area); to 1:03.46 as a sophomore (third in the area); to 1:00.43 as a junior (fastest in the area).

In his first appearance at the state meet as a junior, on paper Hua was not expected to make the 16-swimmer finals. He was seeded 22nd in the 100-yard butterfly (55.97). He not only made the finals, but he placed 12th in 54.45, 1.52 seconds better than his seed time. Only Sherando’s Ayman Ibrahim had a higher finish among local swimmers at the competition held at SwimRVA in Richmond.

“It was amazing going there,” Hua said. “And making finals, that was great.”

Hua had every reason in the world to think his senior season was going to be his best one yet based on how his junior year ended. But that was before Hua received news that no one his age ever thinks about.

Late in the summer, Hua noticed he had lumps on the upper part of the left side of his chest. They didn’t hurt, but he eventually decided to see a doctor about it. On Nov. 5 — the first day of official swimming practice — Hua found out the cause of his lumps was Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“It was a lot to take in,” said Hua, whose family has no history of cancer. “I’ve mostly been a healthy kid and didn’t have anything wrong with me. So this was a big shock.”

Hua said he was encouraged to hear that because of advances in medicine doctors have had a lot more success in recent years in giving people a chance to overcome Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“They told me I would recover normally and live a healthy life,” said Hua, who receives his treatment at the University of Virginia.

However, Hua was told he needed to go through four 21-day treatment cycles involving chemotherapy to have a chance at living that healthy life. (The last cycle ends Feb. 3. Hua’s body will also be scanned in three months for an update on his status.)

One week after Hua’s diagnosis, Hua started the first cycle. For Hua, each cycle starts with three days of treatment involving chemotherapy in Charlottesville at U.Va. On the eighth day of the cycle, Hua returns to U.Va. for more treatment and chemotherapy.

Hua — who has lost all his hair and sometimes doesn’t have much of an appetite — said the hardest part of the process is the physical act of going to the hospital in Charlottesville.

But there are times when the cumulative effects of everything he’s going through take a toll. From Jan. 2-6 — midway through Hua’s third cycle — Hua had to spend five days in the hospital as a result of a 103-degree fever, vomiting and chills.

But on Jan. 7, Hua was back practicing with James Wood’s swim team.

“The thing that’s hard on him and also on me is that he feels good now, but then the next cycle starts,” said Truong on Wednesday, about a half hour before Brian jumped in the pool for practice. “But he’s doing a good job of handling everything.”

That includes his school work. Throughout his high school years, Hua has been a straight-A student. Though Hua stopped coming into school when he began his chemotherapy cycles, his math and Latin teachers come to his house and instruct him for one hour per week. (Hua will return to school on Feb. 4 when his last chemotherapy cycle is over.)

Hua said if he needs a break or has to miss an assignment, he’s excused by his teachers. But Hua’s not the type to ask for breaks.

“His teachers just told him [Wednesday], ‘Why are you doing all this work?’” Dawn said. “They try to keep him up to speed, but he wants to do more than that.”

It’s that type of work ethic that’s allowed Hua to maintain his status as one of the area’s best swimmers.

Hua said he was initially worried that he wouldn’t be able to swim at all this year because of his condition. But after he had a port placed in his chest to receive medicine in mid-December, he was cleared to start swimming.

Since then Hua said he’s been in the pool practically every day when he isn’t in Charlottesville, and he got in five practices with the Colonels before appearing in his first meet at the Warrenton Aquatics Center against Liberty, Fauquier and Culpeper County. That took place on Dec. 21, two days before the end of his second 21-day treatment cycle.

“Going into that meet, I was nervous,” Hua said. “When I practiced before the meet, I would get tired pretty quickly.”

 

All Hua did was take first place in both the 50-yard freestyle (23.56 seconds) and 100 backstroke (1:00.13). The only area swimmers who have performed better in those events than Hua this year are Clarke County’s Eamon Juday in the 50 free and Hua’s cousin Peter Pham in the 100 backstroke.

“I wasn’t that far off my best times, surprisingly, so I was really happy about that,” Hua said.

Hua elected to hold off on trying his top event, the 100-yard butterfly, until Thursday against Clarke County. Brian said he felt tired, but he swam a respectable 58.15, 3.6 seconds slower than his top time from last year.

Hua’s fatigue was understandable. Just a few minutes earlier, Hua swam on his second relay team of the meet and helped James Wood to a season-best time of 1:37.91 in the 200-yard free relay, automatically qualifying the Colonels for the Region 4C meet.

“He’s swimming like he didn’t take any time off at all,” said Cavanagh the day before the meet.

Senior teammate David Dorsey said everything that Hua’s been doing this year has been an inspiration.

“I didn’t know if he’d be able to swim this year, so just the fact that he’s coming out here is impressive to me,” Dorsey said. “When you see someone going through treatment like that, you feel lucky to be able to go out there and swim every day. And when you see how hard he’s working, it pushes you to do more.”

Because a lot of area high school swimmers are teammates with each other on summer league teams and year-round clubs like Winchester Swim Team and Valley Swim Team Phoenix, the swimming community is a particularly tight one.

When Sherando senior Kyra Schultz — an eight-year teammate through USA Swimming — came up with the idea for the temporary “#Huastrong” tattoos, the four local high schools were eager to support someone like Hua at the City-County Sprints on Dec. 6.

“He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Dorsey said. “If someone needs help with their starts or turns he’s there to help them out and tell them what they should be doing differently.”

“He’s driven to make sure other kids are doing well,” Cavanagh said. “If his teammates ask for his help, he’s more than willing to help them out. It’s the same thing with school. He’s helping other kids with math homework before practice starts.”

Hua was in Charlottesville receiving treatment on Dec. 6, so he wasn’t able to attend the City-County Sprints. He didn’t find out about it until people starting sending him pictures after the meet.

“It was really cool,” Brian said.

Hua’s looking forward to a day when he doesn’t have to be separated from his teammates again. Today marks the start of his fourth and final 21-day cycle, which means Hua will be spending the next three days in Charlottesville and have to back off on his training a bit.

But over the past couple of months, Hua said he’s felt his strongest at the end of each cycle. The Class 4 Northwestern District meet is Feb. 2, the second-to-last day of the cycle, at the Warrenton Aquatic Center.

The top eight individuals and top four relays in each event at the district meet and those with regional-qualifying times advance to the Region 4C meet at the Claude Moore Recreation Center in Sterling on Feb. 8. In addition to the 200-yard freestyle relay, Hua has already qualified for regions in the 100 backstroke. The top five individuals and top four relays from there move on to the state meet, so Hua will have his multiple opportunities to get back to Richmond even if he can’t get a state-qualifying time.

Hua would love to get back to the state meet, but the bottom line is that any moment in the pool is a good one.

“It’s great being back in swimming, and seeing all my teammates improve, and swimming with them,” Hua said. “I try not to make a big deal of the cancer. I just try to keep going.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1

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