Thursday, January 31, 2013

Luck's Got Nothing To Do With It: The Story Of A Survivor

If I were to tell you a story of a young man who, by the time he was twenty-two years old, would be personal friends with Tim Tebow, would have played catch with the ace starting pitcher of the Colorado Rockies (merely by chance), and would have a self-written blog sponsored and published by the Huffington Post, you would likely marvel at the good fortune with which he has been blessed. But as the proverbial saying goes, "luck's got nothing to do with it."

Sometimes in life, the greatest trials show the true colors of a human being. We must fall, to learn to pick ourselves up; we must struggle through weakness to learn our strengths. But no human being anticipates, or deserves the types of trials that Woody Roseland has had to suffer. Cancer has occurred and re-occurred for this twenty-two year old throughout the course of the past six years, and despite the physical scars he bears, he continues to provide smiles for everyone around him. Woody has used what many would call a curse, to provide the foundation of a comedic and public speaking career aimed at raising money for cancer research and providing a source of comfort for those individuals in similar situations as himself. This is his story.

When I first met Woody, we were new sixth graders at Laredo Middle School in Aurora, Colorado. Me, a shy student sheltered and intimidated by the challenges that lay ahead. This was after all, the first step at graduating from childhood to the real world (or so my naive eleven year old mind told me). Him, Woodrow Roseland, a name more fitting of a Rush-Limbaugh-supported-lame-duck-president, quite the opposite; almost as vibrant in personality as his contrasting half bleach blonde, half dark brown hairdo that was incomprehensively in-style in 2001; I would be lying if this didn't put me off a bit. It was not until high school football that we became friends.

United in our inability to make any significant impact on the football field (okay, we were bench warmers on an awful high school team), Woody and I made it our mission to power clean and bench press our way to glory. We both started to notice changes in our bodies; what Woody called "Madden-Arms" in reference to the popular video-game franchise, but what many of you would recognize as simple-muscle tone associated with lifting weights for the first time in our lives. He would be the Jerry Rice to my Steve Young, the Larry Fitzgerald to my Kurt Warner, the Calvin to my Hobbs (wait, never mind), and we were going to re-write the record books! We were headed straight for the Hall of Fame! Okay, maybe just a slight not-so-fully-developed-pre-frontal-cortex exaggeration (although if you asked him, I'm sure he would have you believe otherwise), but we both became better football players because of our new found friendship. He started to see more varsity playing time, and I started to creep closer and closer to the playing surface during games without being penalized (okay, I still sucked, but I was one helluva field goal holder). Our, or rather his, success was short-lived.  During our junior year of high school, Woody sustained the injury that would change his life forever.
Woody and I, 2011

I cannot remember when he hurt his knee, whether it be at practice, in a game, or while we were lifting weights. I do, however, remember him telling me, in an unusual tone, filled with the slight pride of unspoken validation of a football career and manhood only induced by physical injury; "Torn meniscus, Bill, yep, I'll be on IR for awhile." Where you'd expect a typical high school athlete to be crushed by this kind of news, Woody seemed, undoubtedly, to be fighting back a smile, as he rested his new crutches against the wall; more apt being described as hoists to his new found pedestal of injured "superstar," than handicaps. Obviously I felt bad for the kid, but as always, Woody made the best of the situation and his injury became a side-note. But as the weeks progressed the injury failed to heal properly, perplexing his doctors and ultimately culminating in a biopsy of his left knee. Unfortunately, Woody did not have a torn meniscus; it was cancer.

I could tell you my version of what has happened since then, but it would be insufficient. Although we have remained friends throughout his battle, I wanted to understand his first-person account of what has transpired thus far. Most of our friendship post-diagnosis has involved trying to distract focus from his illness; providing an outlet to return to normalcy, even if only for a short period of time. Over dinner recently, I was able to capture his journey, straight from the proverbial “horse’s mouth.”

“At first, I was so na├»ve and stupid, the only thing that bothered me was that I couldn’t play football,” he told me. “I was 16 years old, I had no idea what ‘Chondroblastic Osteosarcoma’ meant.” What it meant was bone cancer. Initially thought to be Stage II, Woody would soon find out the true seriousness of his disease as most 16 year olds would, turning to the most reliable, medically-sound source on the planet. “On Wikipedia, the first thing I saw was a guy running a marathon with one leg…That’s when I said, ‘Oh shit’. I came upstairs and both of my parents were sitting at the kitchen table, and they’re divorced so it’s always weird to see them together. They were crying.” Woody’s parents informed him that his cancer was actually Stage III, requiring pre- and post-operational chemotherapy, as well as a massive knee surgery to remove the tumor.

On August 2nd, 2007, sixteen year old Woody underwent a procedure usually reserved for the likes of the elderly and some of the most brutally injured and abused professional athletes: a total knee replacement. Still not understanding the gravity of the situation, Woody inquired his doctor of his prospective football future. “I think he might have laughed,” he recalls, “like, ‘that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.’” Although forced into football retirement, four rounds of post-operational chemotherapy and intense physical therapy resulted in a return to a bit of normalcy in his life. He was in remission, and he could finally be young and stupid like the rest of us, albeit sharing more Darth Vader-qualities than most kids his age. Unbeknownst to Woody and the rest of us, his fight was only just beginning.

After the onset of remission, defined not as “cancer-free” as most people believe, but as a lack in tumor growth or metastasis, cancer patients are required to receive scans periodically to check on the continuity of improving health. For Woody, scans were to take place every three months, but due to a scheduling error, an eight-month gap occurred. Nearly a year of remission was abruptly halted, instead replaced with a new diagnosis; Doctors found three golf-ball-sized (or as Woody jokes, “golf-ball-size-hail-sized”) tumors on his lungs, requiring immediate surgery in the summer of 2009. Chemotherapy was performed until the holiday season that year, and unfortunately this type of recurrence became a trend in his life.

In February 2010, a follow-up scan revealed that more tumors had formed in the short period since finishing his last rounds of chemo. Woody, along with his family and doctors, decided to undergo a clinical drug trial of L-MTP-PE at MD Anderson in Texas, designed specifically for people with recurrent osteosarcoma. For the next several months, while most kids his age were busy at college, drinking non-adult beverages and partaking in legal fun, Woody’s days consisted of two treatments per day in the lonestar state. Finally, after almost a full year of treatment, remission returned. One final lung surgery upon the trial’s conclusion (to remove the “control” tumors left in his body as a requirement, to test the effectiveness of the drug), and Woody was home. Over the proceeding months, remission remained and it seemed as though normalcy was inevitable. Slowly Woody’s mind eased, save for a nagging pain in the calf of his replaced knee. His doctors assured him that the pain was a common side effect of the knee replacement, and the pain could be chalked up to tendonitis; some ice and ibuprofen ought to do the trick. Bone scans affirmed the prognosis, but the already crippling pain only increased. Woody began taking up to 15 Ibuprofen per day for the pain. In the interest of his liver, an MRI was ordered despite hesitations from the oncologist (apparently magnetic imaging and a metallic knee blend as well as oil and water) that the results would lack any conclusive evidence.

I was among the group of friends who was actually with Woody when he received the news of his results. I would like to tell you that it was a privilege to hear that everything was normal; unfortunately, nothing about his journey has any resemblance of normal. Forever burned in my mind, will be the look on Woody’s face when he received the news of what he described as “…the lowest point in my battle.” A four-inch tumor had snaked around his calf most likely requiring amputation. The smile that had persevered through so much pain and turmoil was replaced by utter defeat. “There are two things that you fear when you are first diagnosed: amputation and death,” Woody explained to me, as I asked him to recall that day. I can still feel the pain of him telling us the grim news, chilling my soul despite the cruelly sunny summer day. “Why him?” I asked myself. The kid who continued to bring smiles to those around him, who never asked for pity or expected any special treatment, who continued to be a great friend even in his incomprehensible struggle; Why him? I found myself speechless. How do you console a friend, whose victorious efforts and will, were replaced in an instant by the realization of years of futility? A simple “I’m sorry,” carried about the same weight as a bare feather, and “It’s going to be okay,” would have been insulting. All we could do was support our friend, and hope that other routes of tumor removal were possible. An angiogram in the coming weeks showed that amputation was the only possibility for Woody, and in June 2011, doctors removed his left leg right above the knee. He was forced to move back in with his dad (something he notes as, “exactly what every 20 year old wants to do,” but would later point to as a rekindling point of their relationship), and his battle, now more of a declared war, was still not over.

Since his amputation, Woody has endured a number of rounds of chemotherapy and treatment. On August 20th, 2012, Woody was diagnosed with cancer for the seventh time; the fifth time it had metastasized into his lungs. Nearly 20 surgeries, rounds of chemo totaling in the triple-digits, and seven cancer diagnoses, yet he pushes on. He does not feel bad for himself, because he understands all too well, that time is limited. There is no time to submit to the power of cancer, because he knows that it is merely a persistent uninvited guest. I asked him to provide insight into the roller coaster of emotions he has experienced, and what has gotten him through everything:
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of bad days; moving back in with my dad, watching friends graduate and move on with their lives. But I’ve had enough bad days to see the lack of value in bad days. If you want life to suck, life is going to suck. The world will accommodate your horrible life view. I have experienced the full spectrum of emotions and I enjoy my life a lot better when I’m happy and when the people around me are happy…I’ve had a good group around me; They’ve made it easy for me to keep a good attitude and I owe a lot of credit to them. I feel like I’ve enjoyed my life [and] if you’re gonna weigh out my life, positive versus negative, I am still way in the positive.”

Frankly, an astounding paradigm for someone who has been through the ringer, but that is Woody; as much as his cancer perseveres, his will remains unwavering and stronger than ever. He knows that every day he is alive and on this planet, is a gift, and as he writes in his most recent blog post on Huffington Post, "To not appreciate the wonderful opportunity that every day is, is disrespectful to each and every person who was taken too soon." Woody’s cancer story is similar to what affects too many people in our lives. Instead of letting it beat him, however, he has embraced his disease as an opportunity.

In 2012, a year which began with days of re-learning how to walk in a prosthetic left leg, Woody has done everything from playing golf in Tim Tebow’s celebrity golf tournament, to giving interviews on CNN with a fake-Australian accent, to even teaching Von Miller a new sack dance. But these adventures pale in comparison to what he has done for the cancer community.

Perhaps his most significant contribution, at least financially-speaking, Woody assumed the role of keynote speaker to over 10,000 people at Pelotonia 2012 (the largest bike event in the country). With his help, the event raised almost $17 million toward their moniker, “one goal: end cancer.” He spoke at the event TEDxMileHigh, a spot usually reserved for Doctorates and MBAs, giving a riveting speech that garnered a standing ovation by challenging us to realize the all-too-often-forgot fact that “you are HERE.”  Woody gave back to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that helped him during his first stint, by being the spokesperson for their thirtieth anniversary celebration. The list goes on and on, and he still finds time to help people with cancer individually, and as a whole (through videos like this, and t-shirt campaigns). All of this from a guy who told me, “I really didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until about six months ago. Everyone started dying around me…That is when I started taking it seriously.” Watch out cancer; your days are numbered.

I, like so many others, have been inspired by Woody’s story. Even just preparing questions through preliminary research, I half-expected him to arrive to our dinner in a flying horse-drawn carriage. But as we reminisced about both the stories outlined in this piece, and ones slightly less appropriate, I realized the part of his story that is the most encouraging: even though his hair is slightly thinner (maybe a good thing, considering his previous stylistic decisions) and his body scarred immensely, he is still the same friend that I knew so long ago. He is not blessed with Einstein’s brains, or Bo Jackson’s athleticism, or Brad Pitt’s looks (although I’m sure he’d disagree with the final assertion). He is the same as you and I, with one extreme difference: his attitude. Woody Roseland makes the best of every single day he is alive, and is committed to making a difference in others’ lives. With regard to how people should help, he told me, “Find something that affects you, and get involved. There’s enough problems out there; find something you care about, and do something about it.” Ultimately, Woody teaches us to value life every day; something all too prevalent in the wake of this morning’s tragedy. You don’t have to be the President of the United States, or a movie star, or a billionaire businessman to make a difference. If we can all pursue what moves us, there’s no telling what our limits entail.

All too often, the term "hero" is thrown around in our culture; David Tyree makes an unbelievable catch in the Superbowl and he is a hero. Derek  Jeter makes an un-predictable, out of position play to send the Yankees to the World Series; yet again, a "hero." But these men, and these acts, as superhuman as they may seem, cannot measure up to Woody Roseland's shoelaces. He shows us the real meaning of hero everyday that he battles for his life, fundamentally rooted and motivated  in the unselfish passion to help others in similar precariousness; so that one day, his kids and my kids and your kids, will be free from the shackles of the disease that has left him bruised, and beaten, yet stronger than ever. Heed his advice and his experience, for all of us will someday die, but not all of us will truly live. And as he says, "Embrace the suck. Give today a reason while you still can."

Something to leave you thinking: (From Woody)
"...the truth is, if you have a mouthful of blood, you're usually in a fight of some sort, and you usually have bigger problems to deal with. So what do I do? I spit it out. I like to remind myself of the harsh reality that I find myself in. I like to find myself face-to-face with the situation I'm in. I spit it out for the same reason I keep my expired license from when I was bald and on chemo. No matter how good I look (and I look terrific, ladies), no matter how good I feel, and no matter how much fun I have, I'm still going through some shit. The reason you don't hear of many other people who have had cancer seven times is because they all die before they get to seven times. Now, I won't claim that I have fought any harder or that my mentality somehow helped me survive longer; but everyday that I wake up and spit blood is one more than many, many people I know who have fought courageously until their dying breath. To not appreciate the wonderful opportunity that every day is, is disrespectful to each and every person who was taken too soon."

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