April 25, 2008

Inspiration From Tragedy

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I started to cry. I haven’t cried in a long time.
I don’t know why it happened, but something about his story leveled me. It made me horrified, saddened, inspired and reflective, all at the same time. Maybe you’ll feel the same way.
Adam Frey, a junior and Cornell wrestler, has always been a man of incredible physical and mental strength. On March 25, only a few days after competing in the NCAA championships, Adam was in a car crash. A car came at him in the wrong lane, and going 55 mph his car fishtailed, rolled, hit a tree and sent him flying to the back of the vehicle.
The first time I read the words describing this, I was sitting in my chair at my desk, unaware of what I would learn next. It was Thursday, two days after the accident.
Luckily, the account of the accident was written by Frey, and it had good news to tell.
“My whole body was numb except for an incredible pain in my neck. After realizing I was not paralyzed, I exited the car and called my roommate to come pick me up. My stuff was scattered as far as 50 feet out the back of the car from the roll and my car [was] totaled.”
Those are the words from Adam’s blog. In fact, Frey barely had a scratch on him, just some whiplash. The doctor who checked him out at the hospital marveled that he must be one of the toughest, strongest people around to have survived a crash like that. Just to be sure though, a CAT scan was preformed, and came back negative for injuries.
It’s amazing, I remember thinking. He’s so lucky.
And then my heart sank, because Adam Frey’s negative CAT scan changed his life forever.
You see, the scan came back negative for injuries. It came back positive for something else though: cancer. Advanced, Stage III, metastasized cancer, with tumors on his lung, liver and between his kidneys.
“At the age of 22, and with never smoking, chewing, doing drugs, and being as healthy as anyone in wrestling shape, I have cancer.” (His blog again.)
I stopped reading right there. I think I put my hands on my cheeks, went numb and lost focus, but I don’t really remember. Eventually, I stood up, and sat back down. Then I cried.
I have never met Adam Frey. I have many close ties with Cornell athletics, but really none with wrestling. I didn’t really know much about him at that point, other than what I heard from Sports writers and read in the paper, just like many of you. Yet, here I was, crying.
To this day I think about it, and I still can’t tell you why I cried. I can’t even explain why I have the emotions I feel now. Maybe it is the thought of experiencing such a life-threatening event, surviving in almost superhuman fashion, and then finding out you’re on the verge of death again. Perhaps it is the irony of needing to face death in order to save your life. Maybe it’s because Adam is someone like me — about 22 years old, college student, healthy, never smoked — and it just didn’t matter. Maybe it’s because Adam just isn’t like me though: he’s an athlete, one of national prominence, so strong that he can enter a bodybuilding competition, deadlift more than 300 pounds without a problem, has eight inches of back muscles to penetrate on his biopsy instead of the usual three and survives a high-speed car wreck with little more than a neck strain.
At the time, I guess all I could do was cry when I thought about it all. I sobbed awhile, and then did the only other thing I could think of: I called my Dad, who specializes in drug resistance in cancer patients. Since then, doctors have confirmed Frey has testicular cancer that spread around his body, but is not in his testicles. It’s genetic: he was born with it, and there was no way to prevent it once that happened. It’s also very aggressive, but fortunately, very treatable if caught early.
I have read his blog every single day since then. He updates it daily, despite undergoing the most aggressive chemotherapy offered. I have come to know and admire Adam through his blog, through his ups and downs. I got the opportunity to speak to Adam yesterday, one month after his accident.
“I walked out of that car accident Josh, and I felt like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable. Then I walked into the hospital …” Frey said with a pause. “You’ve got to keep your chin up. You’ve got to be positive. … The support I have really helps me to stay positive. The blog helps me to stay positive. … I can help people. I can help share my faith in God. And I can raise awareness of this disease. Maybe that’s why I’m here. Maybe that’s why I got it, because it’s kind of hard to help people when your only ambition is beating the hell out of them on the wrestling mat.”
This is one of the biggest reasons I admire Adam Frey. Sure, he has some bad days that get to him, like the day he found out the potential consequences of his cancer and the side-effects of its treatment, or the day a few people yelled at him and one of them called him “lazy” for being in bed at 11 a.m. For the most part though, his positive outlook on seemingly the entire situation, along with his humor and self-disclosure of personal and sometimes incredible events (read the April 6 post, for example) has been truly remarkable.
It’s not just me who has grown to admire and support him. The outpour of goodwill has been seemingly endless: over 3,000 people have joined the “Adam Frey Support Group” on Facebook. His blog has received over a million hits, including 500,000 in the 14 days after his accident. Hundreds, if not thousands of comments can be found around the site, wishing him well.
Talking on the phone from home, he spoke adamantly about wanting to spread awareness of testicular cancer — which is highly treatable when caught early — as well as all cancers, and hopes his blog and newfound attention can help him do that. He also spoke about being a role model, and even an inspiration for some people. More than anything though, he feels the whole situation has changed his perspective.
“Sometimes it’s a struggle, sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise,” Frey said. “It’s kind of strange to think how close I was to dying. If they didn’t catch it until a month later, it would have been, ‘sorry, you’re going to die.’ That’s kind of shocking. It is shocking. It’s bizarre. … I’d give anything to be up there, studying and taking exams, as bleak as that sounds. That’d be better than sitting eight hours a day, getting chemo.
“I thought bad days were what everyone thought bad days were,” he said. “And now I’m sitting here, just going, ‘yeah, bad grade on a test or a bad practice or losing a match is not a bad day.’ A bad day is coming to in the back seat of your truck, with your head blown out the back window, and walking away from it to find out you’re in the most advanced stage of cancer. … I mean, who would think [we] could have cancer? I don’t know how to light a cigarette.”
Although his physical prowess and lifelong care of his body has helped him withstand the treatment, Frey was stunned to learn that his health had no impact on his susceptibility and prospects of recovery from this form of cancer: it was all genetics. That’s why Frey spoke adamantly about wanting people to get tested for cancer, and early.
“You could never know,” he said. “I had a 12-pound tumor in me and I did not know it existed. That’s almost unfathomable.”
Luckily, despite his advanced stage of cancer, Adam’s first week of chemotherapy came back with stunningly good results. His blood work looks great and the tumors are shrinking, despite (or perhaps catalyzed by) his daily weightlifting. In fact, the results are so good that Frey said his doctor may start recommending physical activity to other patients.
“It’s looking really good for me, but I’m not out of the woods yet by any means, and I won’t be for awhile. I won’t be for the rest of my life,” Frey explained. “It’s scary to look at it and know my brother’s very high risk, to think that I might [become] sterile … genetic mutations from the chemo. People don’t understand how hard this really is on your body. … People don’t understand: when you lose your hair, it comes back a different color because your DNA mutates from the chemicals.”
Anguish. Fatigue. Nausea. Pain. Hair loss. Loneliness. Boredom. These are just some of the things Adam experiences regularly, undergoing two liters of chemotherapy liquids a day. But Frey has gone through trials and tribulations, mental and physical. Sitting out a year of wrestling to recover from injuries, literally starving himself to show his commitment to the team because of problems making weight and facing criticism about his match stamina (the growing tumors might have explained part of that). After all of that, to have this happen now seems … unfathomable.
But as Frey and wrestling head coach Rob Koll pointed out, Frey has pushed himself to the limit so often mentally and physically, that fighting cancer may not seem so bad to him. Up to now, he has taken it all in stride.
“It’s not going to keep me away from doing what I want to do,” Frey said. “Right now, I’m just trying to take it day-by-day, and raise money for the treatment. It’s expensive.”
That’s why a fund — through the University — has been established in Frey’s name, to help him cover the expenses of the chemotherapy and any surgeries he may (and likely will) need. You can make a donation or buy a t-shirt from his blog, adamfrey.us, and the money will go to the fund. If he can raise enough money, Adam hopes to start a foundation with any leftover funds.
Frey’s family, teammates and coaches have all been there for him since that fateful day a month ago. Koll says he speaks to Adam or his Mom daily. Teammates expressed shock and disbelief, and have kept in touch with Adam despite him being home.
As for me, I visit adamfrey.us every morning. Every time I read, I pause to think about how amazing this is. Why do I come back and read a site about a man I have never met? Why do I feel so strongly about this? I care, there is no doubt about that, but there must be something else I can’t fully grasp.
Maybe it’s because I know I’m witnessing something amazing, watching a man fight for his life and still try to turn it into a way to help others. Maybe reading your words, Adam, has helped me rediscover the value of my own life, just knowing you’re fighting for yours and knowing your perspective.
In his April 3 post, Adam talked about just hoping to make a difference for someone because of this ordeal. His site has one million hits already. Even if only a single one of those hits has had an influence, Adam, your words have changed someone’s life for the better.
Thank you.
Josh Perlin is the former Sports Editor of The Sun and a Sun Senior Writer. My Pitch appears on alternate Fridays.