I am Andrew and this is my story.
I used to race bicycles professionally. It took me all over the world. I like to brag that I’ve crashed in almost every country I’ve lived in. After my third concussion my wife convinced me to find a safer competitive outlet and eventually I found triathlon. The sport was a new challenge, but it rewarded hard work—something I was used to. I didn’t have to worry about strategy as my race plan was simple: Don’t drown…Kill everybody on the bike…And then hang on for dear life on the run. I had some decent results that first year including winning the overall of the Georgia Olympic Distance Championships. I even did an Ironman that first year, placing fifth overall at the Great Floridian. Soon triathlon, like cycling had been, was my life.
In May of 2004 I went for a routine physical which showed my white blood cells a bit elevated. I had just done the St. Croix Half Ironman, so I blew off my doctor’s request to come back for more testing.
A couple of months later I went up to New York to race Ironman Lake Placid. I was in pretty good shape and came off the bike twentieth overall, including pros. But on the run I immediately started falling apart. Every step I took felt like someone was beating me with a baseball bat. As a triathlete, we’re all used to pain. But this was different. And at mile fifteen or so I did the hardest thing I’d ever done as an athlete up to that point and pulled out of the race.
And things were about to get worse.
I finally went back to my doctor for a follow up blood test and my white blood cells, which should be no higher than ten thousand, were over forty-five thousand. I was immediately sent for more blood work and eventually to a hematologist. But at that point I already knew the diagnosis—Chronic Myleogenous Leukemia.
CML strikes one out of every one hundred thousand people world wide, and apparently I was one of the lucky ones. I can remember going to Atlanta Cancer Care that first time and filling out the paper work for new patients. Other than my name I basically turned in a blank sheet of paper. I mean, there was no history of cancer in my family. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I looked around at the other patients in the waiting room and I could see that they had cancer. They looked sick. But I was an athlete!
From that day forward, everything seemed to be in the past tense: I was an athlete. Before I had cancer, I…
I remember coming home after that appointment, before the tears had really started, and my wife asked me to wash the dishes. We have our house wired for the stereo and she put on a c.d. First song was something like “Crying Over You” and I was like, baby, I just can’t handle that right now. I thought her timing stunk, but maybe she was just trying to keep a sense of normalcy in our overturned lives. I tried to, as well, but things weren’t normal anymore. Everything seemed so heavy, so final. I was thirty-two years old and a born optimist yet I thought I’d never laugh again or even smile. I didn’t think I could love or do anything which we often take for granted without my diagnosis tainting it.
And my poor mom…I didn’t start traditional treatment right away cause I didn’t want to take Gleevec. She was so worried about her son, disagreeing with my decision. I was getting sicker by the day. But I just didn’t want to take a chemo which would pollute my body. I’d read about the bone pain, fatigue, the possible hair loss, the weight gain—couldn’t handle gaining weight as a triathlete.
But was I still a triathlete? I mean, I was scared of the chlorine in the water, so I didn’t swim. Running was too painful. And my cycling, the one strength I always had, became a joke. I was going to go for a training ride one day when my wife saw me struggling up the stairs in our house, holding on to the rail and breathing like a two-pack-a-day smoker. My white blood cells peaked at 110,000, crowding out my red blood cells and making me severely anemic. I had become one of those patients I’d seen in the waiting room at Atlanta Cancer Care, and she begged me to stay home and rest.
I felt like my identity had been stolen and replaced by a label I never thought I’d wear: “Cancer survivor.” And what was killing me, other than the leukemia that is, was the feeling that I couldn’t really do anything to fight it. I couldn’t out run it. I couldn’t go to the gym and lift it away. I couldn’t outsmart it. I was a competitor but I couldn’t even see my competition.
After a lot of family urging, especially from my biggest supporter, my mom, I started Gleevec. Within 2 ½ weeks I was in hematologic remission. That was the first step. I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t expose myself to chlorine until my white blood cells were normal, so that milestone allowed me to swim. I began to bike a bit with a cycling buddy of mine who was patient and didn’t mind going slow. I think he remembered the pushes I’d given him on training rides and felt like he owed me. I was fat and out of shape, but for the first time in months I felt like I was making progress with my disease. Progress with my life.
I’ve had a lot of those firsts since my diagnosis. Kinda cool as you get to experience so many things for the first time again. My first triathlon was St. Anthony’s down in St. Pete, FLA. Racing was so much harder than I remembered, yet so much…I don’t know…more. I can’t tell you what it meant to be competing again. To have an actual line to cross to tell you you’ve made it. I came across the finish and fell into my wife’s arms and we cried together, me hiding my face in her neck. I don’t know if it was happiness or sadness or relief or what. I tell most folks it was just pain from slipping on the metal staircase as I was coming out of the water and breaking my shin. But the truth is even though I finished with a fractured tibia, I didn’t even notice it till after I crossed the line. It was probably just the raw emotion that everyone has because they’re alive.
And I was truly alive. I ended up placing in my age group and regret to this day that I didn’t say something at the awards ceremony when they called my name. St. Anthony’s is a big Team in Training event and the efforts of everyone involved in that organization raised over two million dollars that day. I should have said thank you, but really I was too scared. I don’t like talking in front of people. I don’t really shine in the lime light. But all of those people deserved to know that this Team in Training thing really works.
I’m racing RAAM because of them. I’m racing RAAM because of Gleevec. I’m racing RAAM because I did the dishes earlier so my wife would let me come. I’m racing to say thank you—to show everyone involved in TNT that the people for whom they race are real. I’m one of them. And because of TNT I’m not just a leukemia survivor anymore. I’m an athlete once again. I’m a Kona Finisher. I’m an Ironman Champion. More importantly, I’m still a son and a brother. I’m still a husband and a dad. And in 2021, I’ll join 7 other crazy cyclists and several dedicated crew members—each with their own story—to become a RAAM participant and race over 3000 miles with no timeouts or breaks to raise awareness and money and, most of all, hope.