In February of this year, Aries Haygood was riding high. Life was good for the 34-year-old farmer from Lyons, GA. He had a beautiful family, legions of friends, was known and respected throughout Georgia. He was living his dream, growing Vidalia onions on the family farm. He’d gotten so good at it that when the Vidalia Onion Committee held its annual awards banquet early in the month, he was named Grower of the Year – an almost unheard of honor for one so young.
Haygood had life by the tail.
You’d never know that he had never been in an onion field before he met wife Megan, whose father Terry Collins was cofounder of M and T Farms in Lyons. After they married, Haygood actually sold insurance for a while before he went to work on the farm. Just a few years later he was general manager of the operation and on the boards of both the VOC and the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association.
You’d also never know he was desperately sick. Haygood didn’t know either.
The awards, the recognition, “It seemed like everything was starting to play itself out and give meaning to what I was doing, I had started getting a little direction in what I was doing,” Haygood recalls. “Then all of a sudden, I started having some complications there towards the end of February.”
That wasn’t the first sign something was wrong.
“I was having some stomach problems about a year in advance, and they were kind of like a butterfly in my stomach, I would not feel it when I was at work, only when I stopped and rested,” Haygood remembers. “I began to start thinking it was work related, ulcers or stress. I even went and had a sonogram done and the doctor told me I have a fatty liver: ‘Watch your diet, monitor your symptoms,’ but there were no other signs.”
Over the next year, there were more dangerous symptoms, but they masked themselves as other things.
Nothing But Blood
“What happened in that one year’s time, I began to be really tired. I thought it was work related — my symptoms seemed related to work, that was covering them up,” Haygood says. “Then one morning in February I woke up and went to the bathroom and passed nothing but blood. I thought it was hemorrhoids.”
He’d had them before, off and on for years – it didn’t seem like anything new.
The complications worsened. The blood continued. His fatigue became chronic. Finally in March he went back to the doctor. He was scheduled to have a colonoscopy in December, but decided not to wait.
“I went in, went through the process, the protocol, how they determine if it was a bacterial infection in my stomach or something else. Then in late March I had the colonoscopy that determined the cancer.”
It was bad. Stage 3B colon cancer, there was a family history.
In an instant Haygood went from the top of the world to the bottom. It all flipped, just like that.
“I remember waking up in recovery from the colonoscopy and when you are waking up from those drugs you don’t really know if you’re still dreaming or what. I was waking up and I remember them telling my wife it was cancer. I remember looking at her and I thought I was just dreaming, she was sitting across the room, she didn’t know I was awake yet — I felt helpless — and that’s when she broke down.
Stage 3B And ‘Very Aggressive’
“The doctor that did the colonoscopy could not stage it. So of course when we went in for the preliminary meeting with the surgeon my wife and myself and my mom and dad were all sitting there, that was when they staged the cancer. He told me, ‘Your cancer is 3B and a very aggressive cancer,’ and we discussed the procedures.
“My mom had him answer the question, ‘What if Aries had waited until December of this year?’ – which is right now. He said, ‘Based on the aggression and the size of the tumor, we probably would not be having a discussion about taking it out and saving his life. It would be a different type of discussion.’”
Haygood was stunned. “It takes a while after that to gather your thoughts and all,” he says. “Megan went into Prayer Warrior mode. Me, I was kind of trying to be the strong one: ‘Everything’s going to be fine, I’m okay, I don’t feel bad.’”
His primary concern was for his wife and young daughters. “Worrying about them is the only thing that I worried about – I felt confident, I felt good about the situation I was in, I felt peace – I just didn’t want them to be hurt. Just planning that whole thing… it’s weird when you’re 34 years old and have to think about ‘What if…?’”
‘I Felt That Power Lifting Me’
Word spread quickly through the community. Vidalia is a particularly tight-knit region because so much of its economic engine comes from the onion industry. Word spread like wildfire on social media and hundreds followed the journey on FaceBook. Within days Haygood was on prayer lists throughout Georgia and into other states. He says he felt the impact immediately.
“Growing up and becoming more involved in church and trying to get closer in my walk with the Lord, you always hear of somebody going through a situation and you say, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and sometimes it may slip your mind or you may not do it all the time. I’ve done it – it’s about making sure you really pray for them. But I felt that prayer. I felt that prayer, I could just feel that movement and when people told me they were praying, I knew they were praying. It was simply amazing.”
Even more dramatic was a random visit from a local minister the evening of the diagnosis.
“Somebody knocked on our door. I went and answered and it was a preacher from a local church, I actually knew him, I’d played golf with him, and he was talking to us and invited us to the Easter service. And right at the end he asked if there was anything going on and anything he could pray over with us and that’s when Megan broke down and I told him I had just been diagnosed that morning with cancer and he prayed over it.
“When he got finished there was a sense of… just calm that came over myself and Megan. I remember shutting the door and saying, ‘That was our sign we needed’ and from then on it seemed like everything just fell into place. I wasn’t nervous, I was okay: ‘This is what’s supposed to happen.’ I felt that Holy Spirit and that power lifting me. It was out of my hands; just sit back for the ride.”
Weeks later Haygood found out that minister had told his congregation about the visit. The Haygood home is a little off the beaten path, at the bottom of a hill and hidden in the woods. The minister had been in the neighborhood days before but had skipped the house.
“He told the congregation that he had gotten up that Monday morning and just felt led to go back to that one house he did not go to,” Haygood shares.
From there, the pace picked up. The girls didn’t know exactly what was wrong, just that dad had some stomach troubles and needed an operation. The prayers continued. Letters of support from strangers started to arrive.
The night before the surgery, “Megan just kind of breaks down, emotionally it hit her, she was afraid she was going to lose me. I remember us talking about it and me telling her, ‘Hey, whatever happens is going to happen and we’re going to be fine, we can’t worry about it. We’ve been shown so many signs that God’s got this under control and we’re going to get through this.’ That was kind of our last talk about it. She was at peace, I was at peace, we were just fine. I know it’s kind of crazy but we just felt comfortable and at ease and peace with it.”
A Secret Weapon
The procedure went well. Then aggressive chemo treatments started. Haygood braced himself for the worst. But he had a secret weapon. His brother Achilles, a medical professional in Chicago, had started doing research the moment Aries was diagnosed. Now he had come across what seemed a borderline miraculous treatment for people in similar situations: simple mistletoe extract, from the same plant we’ll all be kissing under this Christmas.
There was plenty of literature from Europe and a pair of websites – www.chrisbeatcancer.com and www.believebig.org – to convince him it was worth a shot. His doctor said there was no risk. So Aries wasted no time starting the extract.
After his first chemo treatment, he felt fine. Same after the second. And the third. And the rest.
“I never lost my appetite, I never got tired, I never got sick, I was always able to eat, I never even lost my hair,” Haygood says.
His doctors wanted to know what he was doing; he shared the mistletoe trick, same as he has continued to do with others over recent months.
In fact, Haygood has been sharing everything about his most wonderful, horrible year with anyone who asks – especially the importance of screening and early intervention. It helps, he says, to give some sense of purpose to the experience, to answer that most unanswerable question: Why?
“I go out and people go, ‘You should be the mayor.’ I love my community and I love to talk, it’s amazing people are thinking about us and still praying for us and they’re still there to support us.
“They come up to me and they want to know how I’m doing and how am I feeling. I’m good, but how are y’all? How are you? I’m not one to boast and I care more about what other people are going through than what I’m going through. But it’s uplifting.”
More uplifting was his follow-up appointment earlier this month, not too long after his final chemo session.
The report was the best early Christmas present ever: Aries Haygood is cancer-free.
A Fresh Perspective On Christmas
That appointment “was definitely an emotional thing, to go through that whole situation and all the ups and downs and the fighting through it and dealing with the chemo and the cancer and battling that, and trying to work and help the business and still contribute anyway I could. And every other Wednesday and every other Friday when I was in there getting my treatments, the other cancer fighters became kind of like another family.
“It’s kind of just… to go through all that and get told that – it’s gone — it was really kind of surreal. I was so excited for myself, but also I was worried about the people I had met who may not get that same news. That’s what was tough.”
For Megan, the good news “was tears of joy for sure. I know I keep reverting back to it, but it’s like we knew that was what was supposed to happen. We just felt so led the whole time we felt like that’s what was planned for us,” Aries says.
Haygood is back at work, still getting stronger, glad to be able to contribute again after others worked harder to cover his absence. He’s looking forward to getting back in the fields, to seeing tiny onion transplants take root and flourish and become the crop that’s made his hometown famous.
More than that, though, he’s looking forward to Christmas.
“It’s amazing for us — number one, for me to be here to celebrate it again, without having something lingering over my mind that this could be my last one – to recognize what the word ‘Christmas’ really means, and to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and to know that He was the one who got me through this, who was there beside me to get me through this, it’s just amazing,” Haygood says.
“And it’s humbling. I’ve been humbled in this whole deal. So many times in life we think we’ve got it all figured out and things are just perfect and we get sidetracked. This definitely brought me back into focus. It’s been a year not to forget.”