Balancing Training, Family, and a Battle with Cancer leading up to the Paralympic GamesBy: Augusto “Goose” Perez, TrueSport Ambassador and Paralympic Athlete
In Greek mythology, the Cycloeps trade one eye for the ability to see the future, but the Gods only gave them the ability to see the day they will die, not how - just a date. Unlike the Cyclopes, I don't know exactly when I will die, but I know most likely what its cause will be - cancer.
My name is Augusto Perez, and I am a Paralympian as well as a stage IV cancer patient. Balancing my training schedule with my family time and my cancer therapy is not easy. It’s indeed a balancing act that I could not manage without the support of my family.
I’m originally from Madrid, Spain, and I came to the United States to play soccer in high school, but remained in the U.S. to obtain a college education. In 2000, I was first diagnosed with high-grade soft tissue sarcoma, and then again in 2002 and 2003. It was after my third diagnosis that we decided to remove my leg at the hip in order to have a chance at saving my life.
The day of the operation I refused to be wheeled into surgery. I was adamant about walking to the surgery table - that I had to walk my own 'green mile.' After all, it was the last time in my life that I would walk. My chances of survival were less than 30%, as high-grade stage IV soft tissue sarcoma does not have a positive prognosis, and it does not respond well with either chemotherapy or radiation. I went through both just in case science was wrong.
In October 2005, after my amputation, I tried wheelchair curling for the first time. Seven weeks later, I was trying out for the 2006 U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Curling team, making the team, and eventually representing the United States at the 2006 Winter Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy. The Paralympic movement has given me outstanding opportunities to see the world and train in world-class facilities. With Wheelchair Curling, I was fortunate to have been a member of two Paralympic Games teams (2006 and 2010), helped lead the Wheelchair Curling World Championship team to a Bronze medal in 2008, and was named USA Curling’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2008, which was the first ever for a wheelchair athlete.
However, with all of my success in Wheelchair Curling, my body craved a more physical sport, and I was ready to set new goals for myself. As a former competitive soccer player, physical competition was in my blood. I wanted to compete in a sport that was more physically demanding, allowing me to continue to be in tip-top shape to put up a fight against the disease. At the same time, I wanted a sport that would allow me to enjoy time with family. Switching sports may have been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
In 2008, I got involved with Paracanoe and won the World Championships in mixed doubles with my esteemed teammate, Tammy Hetke, in 2009. Standing on the medal stand, hearing the national anthem, was one of the biggest honors for me as a naturalized citizen.
In 2011, I joined the U.S. Paralympic Nordic and Biathlon Development Team, and I was training as hard as I ever did when I was an able-bodied soccer player. I trained 3 to 4 hours a day, with early-morning workouts, mid-morning weightlifting, and sometimes a secondary evening workout. I practiced yoga twice a week to work on mobility and to help me deal with the pain.
However, the good thing about being an athlete is that I know training and exercise calms the body and the spirit and releases enough endorphins to help contain the pain. The rush of the adrenaline -- the one thing athletes crave the most when they retire from active competition -- is what helps me make it through the day without screaming at the top of my lungs. Unfortunately, for me, I have found no medication or treatment that has been able to control my pain. I’m not a believer in pain killers as I believe pain is my body’s way of telling me to take care of it. Pain killers often lead to more and more powerful pain cocktails that can cloud an athlete’s mind.
Being a stage IV cancer patient and training for high-level athletics is tricky. On the one hand, my doctor is telling me to let my body rest, while at the same time we both know that being as fit as I can be will help my body recover from surgeries, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments that cause massive damage to my body and system.
In 2008, I was declared clinically cured, which meant that the possibility of the cancer returning went down, but didn’t disappear. However, 2012 would prove to be a rough year.
I guess you could say that cancer runs in my family. In April 2012, I received a phone call from my brothers in Spain that my mom had just been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and had only a couple of days to live. Three months later, my uncle (my mother’s younger brother) was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away in June.
When things like this happen, they shake your foundation, and although I was feeling mentally and emotionally drained, I was training extremely hard to stay healthy in hopes of qualifying for the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi. After passing my yearly cancer check-up in August 2012, I started using my prosthetic more because I felt strong. I had even run a couple of marathons. I remember driving back from a race talking to my wife about getting some titanium staples removed that were left behind from one of my surgeries so that my prosthetic would be more comfortable, and the following morning made an appointment with my doctor.
It was October 2012, and at my appointment, the doctor did an MRI to ensure removing the staples would be safe. The MRI did not look good, and the doctor did a biopsy right away at the office. Three days later – a day when time stood still – I was diagnosed with cancer for a 4th time. I am not afraid of cancer surgeries and treatments, but this time, the diagnosis hit me differently. I now had children to worry about. I have been a high-grade stage IV cancer patient since 2002 but have been able to keep it at bay since 2003. When cancer like this returns, it is not good.
The next few months were filled with treatments and surgeries, but my inner athlete wanted to continue to get ready to go to training camps and upcoming competitions. After my surgery, doctors advised that I abstain from weight-bearing activities. However, as soon as I got home from the hospital, I was doing pull-ups and push-ups. I was determined to keep my body strong for the damage and exhaustion I knew would come from the radiation treatments.
The radiation treatments proved to take their toll, but I managed to jump on a plane and travel to the Paralympic Nordic World Cup. More than simply wanting to compete, the biggest reason driving me to compete at the World Cup was that I wanted to fulfill a promise to my mother that I would meet the standards and finish in the top 10. I was able to meet and exceed Paralympic standards and made myself eligible for both Nordic and Biathlon.
During that World Cup, I did everything I could not to let cancer beat me on the snow. After one of my races, one of the top members of the team came up to me and said, “Goose, thanks for doing what you did today. Seeing you push through everything going on in your life helped me push harder in my own race today.” He later went on to finish on the podium, but that was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
Still now, I keep training with the hopes of being named at the end of January 2014 to Team USA for the Sochi Paralympic Games in March 2014. My coaches send me training schedules, and I hit the gym as much as I can. My wife is a huge part of my training and my success, as she forces me to get out of bed and train when I have no energy. She rides her bike next to me and does not take it easy.
On the weekends, I like to have our twins ride and train with us. I keep a very balanced diet and only take vitamins. I do not take anything that promises a quick build-up of muscle, explosive recovery, etc., as those scare the hell out of me - not just because of possible doping violations, but because they are bad for my overall health and heart.
To me doping is like paying $100 to see your favorite music band in concert, but when you show up, the venue only plays a recording. Doping is wrong, and knowingly taking doping substances to recover from anything no matter how bad an athlete may be feeling is not right. I can honestly say that I have crawled out of cancer surgery and treatment, and back to a full training schedule, and I did it the clean way - by putting in the necessary training hours and effort to reach my goals. I train as hard as I do no matter what life throws at me so my kids can see that it can be done.
I train hard but I always make time for my family no matter how heavy my schedule is because they have been there with me through thin and thick. My family keeps me going. They are the sunshine on a cloudy day. Their smiles light up my life, and without them in my corner supporting me in my endeavors and through my illness, my outlook and enthusiasm for life would be much different. I wake up each day for them. With my participation in disabled sport, I hope that my kids learn the importance of hard work and dedication, and "that there is no worse disability than the inability of seeing the ability in people.”
Cancer wears on you. It drains you, not only physically, but mentally, emotionally, and financially as well. As an athlete, I am supposed to take care of my body, but my body was failing to take care of me. I can control my training, my diet, and most anything related to sport; but I can't control when cancer will take another blow at me. As it stands right now, I have check-ups every 90 days, and I hope that the cancer stays undetectable. I am stage IV non-curable, and although I tell my friends that I get to sign a new lease on life every 90 days, all I can do is continue to walk my very own 'green mile' for as long as I can.
My personal mantra is, “Cancer Warrior: I’d rather fight and inspire than quit and expire!” My hope is that my kids carry that same drive in everything they do.
Augusto Goose Perez currently resides in East Syracuse, New York with his wife and kids.
Learn more about TrueSport Ambassador, Augusto Perez