Teenage sensation Aaron Cruden is facing up to his greatest battle with the same courage he has adopted during his fledgling rugby career.
The highly-rated Manawatu first-five is battling testicular cancer, having already had one testicle removed and now undergoing a grueling nine-week treatment phase including chemotherapy.
Cruden, 19, was diagnosed with cancer shortly before his star showing in Manawatu's unsuccessful Ranfurly Shield challenge in August.
The Manawatu rugby fraternity has rallied around the teenager, the son of former Manawatu captain Stu Cruden.
The Aaron Cruden Fund has been set up by the Lions Club, with donations accepted at any Bank of New Zealand branch.
A collection will also be made at Manawatu's final game of the 2008 Air New Zealand Cup against Tasman on Saturday afternoon.
"Cancer doesn't know any age," Stu Cruden told Yahoo!Xtra.
"Aaron has told me he will do anything he can to promote awareness. But first he has to get through this battle himself.
"He is keen to promote the awareness. But he has to fight his own battle first."
There is no shortage of heroes in the sporting arena for Aaron Cruden to turn to in his health battle.
Cycling great Lance Armstrong is a survivor of testicular cancer.
Former All Black captain Buck Shelford, who Stu Cruden faced off with in the former NPC, is also a cancer survivor.
"Aaron has his own motivation, and everyone in this position has to have that," he said.
"But certainly he has read Lance Armstrong's book. And it is a good read for everybody, and I think all young guys should read it.
"And certainly he is aware of Buck's battle. Buck is coming down to see him which is just outstanding.
"So he is not the only one. He is using those as strength, but he has his own motivation."
The day that changed a young life
Aaron Cruden's world changed forever in the lead-up to Manawatu's much-anticipated Ranfurly Shield challenge against Auckland at Eden Park on August 23.
In January he visited a doctor after fears a lump was developing in his groin.
But the initial diagnosis was that there was nothing wrong with him.
Life carried on as normal for the highly promising first-five.
He again starred in the Manawatu club rugby competition for the College Old Boys club.
His form secured him sought-after selection in the Dave Rennie-coached Manawatu Air New Zealand Cup squad.
Life was looking up for the young pivot, including playing a starring role in the Turbos' come-from-behind 38-38 draw with Waikato in mid-August.
But while life on the football field was looking increasingly positive for Cruden, off-the-field concern was raising in his own mind about his health.
He checked in for a second visit to the doctors after again self-diagnosing a lump in his groin.
The second visit confirmed the worst.
"Aaron was understandably devastated and took it very hard," Stu Cruden said.
"He did show great maturity as a 19-year-old to diagnose himself and went to the doctor. He didn't go, 'Bugger that, I am on the verge of something special'.
"We know that he was being looked at for maybe a Super 14 contract next year. He had created a bit of a buzz.
"Aaron just said to me, 'Dad, I need to go to the doctor'. As much as he hoped that it wouldn't be anything, he showed great maturity to go to the doctor.
"And everything got diagnosed very quickly after that."
A wave of emotions rocked the Cruden family, and Aaron in particular.
The emotions included bitterness over the initial diagnosis, followed by questions of how a seemingly-fit teenaged rugby star could be hit by cancer.
"The doctor maybe should have taken it to another step initially," Stu Cruden said.
"While he was bitter about it initially, he did accept that people do make mistakes, it wasn't done on purpose and that he would come through this with time and would be able to prove himself next season.
"We all look for excuses, we all look for reasons.
"We have gone through that. But that isn't what it is about, it is about moving on and saying, 'This has happened, let's stay strong together, let's stay strong for Aaron and let's get him through this'."
Incredible courage in the face of despair
Aaron Cruden ran onto Eden Park with his team-mates knowing he was set for an enforced break following the match.
He was scheduled for surgery to remove a testicle five days after the match, which Manawatu lost 25-3.
"On the Thursday before that we got all the bad news," Stu Cruden said.
"And I thought he showed great maturity for a 19-year-old to take that on his shoulders and go to Eden Park and play as well as he did.
"Matty James had got injured the week before, therefore the No 1 was already out, and he didn't want to let the team down. And of course, he wanted to play in the Shield game.
"To carry the burden of what he did know about himself at that stage is pretty outstanding."
Aaron Cruden scored Manawatu's sole points in the challenge, landing the penalty which handed the Turbos an early 3-0 lead.
Outside of the Cruden family and only a handful of confidantes, no-one else knew that the young player was battling cancer, including his team-mates.
Aaron Cruden went for a further medical assessment a week after having the testicle removed.
It was hoped that he would be given the all-clear, allowing him to line-up against Taranaki.
But the worst-case scenario was revealed, forcing him out of rugby for at least the rest of the year as he confronts cancer.
"We deliberately kept it to ourselves until we found out he was going to have to have chemo," Stu Cruden said.
"At that stage he was named in the team to go to Taranaki, and we had to pull him out of that because he needed a biopsy on the other testicle.
"We thought it was only fair because we knew he was going into chemo, that we let the team know and asked them just to respect that fact we wanted them to sit on it until we knew exactly what was happening.
"There was still a lot of unknowns, both for him and the family. We were getting some information from the surgeons, but they couldn't give us some of the specifics on what was happening because they weren't the cancer doctors.
"We obviously knew what was serious, but we didn't actually know what was in front of us."
No stranger to adversity
Aaron Cruden's cancer battle is not the first challenge that has been thrust upon him during his fledgling rugby career.
But it is by far the most serious.
Stu Cruden described his son's nature as: "A happy young fella.
"He is very popular, gets on well with people and loves people. He always looks forward to being among people and having fun."
There have been times where that personality trait has been tested, but again not to the extent that it now is.
"When he was at (Palmerston North) Boys' High they had a TB (out-break) and he was one of the pupils who picked up tuberculosis through that," Stu Cruden said.
"He went through a fair bit of treatment to deal with that and that cost him his New Zealand Secondary Schools jersey. He was sidelined at the time and most people feel he would have made that team if he was available.
"He had six months of treatment for that and came through that alright. And again, because of the treatment, it knocked him around a wee bit and had a loss of energy and tiredness."
In the past 12 months his rugby career has been dealt two further blows.
Last season, despite being aged just 18, the Turbos were keen to field the young prodigy.
However the NZRU blocked the move because of his young age.
"He had his eyes on being selected in the Turbos squad last year, but they didn't get a dispensation for him," his father said.
"They just thought he was too small. He took that pretty hard. He saw it as stifling his career, but mentally he had to come through that."
Then earlier this year he missed out on the New Zealand Under-20 team because he was born just seven days after the cut-off date.
"Psychologically that knocked him a little bit," Stu Cruden said.
"But again, he parked that behind him, got on and played some really good club rugby and got selected in the Turbos this year."
Retaining hope in the face of cancer
The Cruden family are upbeat about Aaron's hopes of recovery.
They have been buoyed by comments from medical experts presently treating him.
But there is still no getting away from the battle in front of him and what he now faces.
"He has lost one testicle and he is now on what they call a three cycles of chemo treatment. Over the next nine weeks he will have intensive chemo treatment," Stu Cruden said.
"It (the cancer) has spread to the lungs. But the doctors are very confident that they will be able to get the cancer through the process, through the treatment he is going through.
"It is an intense nine-week program, we are all aware of that and the challenges associated with it."
One of the great traits about sport is the mate-ship which is directed to those who fall on tough times.
And that certainly is the case with Aaron Cruden who is receiving strong support from his team-mates, the Manawatu Rugby Union and Turbo fans.
In his limited time on the field for the Turbos this season the young Cruden has given Manawatu fans a lot of joy.
Among that group is Stu Cruden, who played 58 games in the green and white jersey, including 40 as captain.
"I have gotten great pride in watching Aaron play for Manawatu," he said.
"I was lucky enough to play for Taranaki, Wairarapa Bush and Manawatu. But Manawatu was always my home and always will be my home.
"So to see one of my boys manage to put the Manawatu jersey on does make you very proud."
Aaron and his family know that what lies ahead is going to be a battle.
But this is a lad who has overcome adversity before and courage certainly isn't something he has lacked in during his career to date.
With that positivity in mind, Aaron has already started plotting a possible return from his hospital bed.
"The idea is to be in limited training from early to mid-December," he said.
"He wants to make sure he is in decent shape by mid-March and try and get back into the Turbos next year.
"But we are going to have to monitor that very carefully. Being a young fella, he will want to dive in boots and all.
"Coming out of the chemo, and not sure how he responds to that sort of thing, we have to make sure that he doesn't knock himself around too much, too early in his recovery."
DONATIONS CAN BE MADE TO THE AARON CRUDEN FUND AT ANY BANK OF NEW ZEALAND BRANCH NATIONWIDE.
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