Cycling Away From Cancer – Michael Adsit, 65, Milford, Pennsylvania
Statistics tell us that one of two American men and one of three American women will personally encounter cancer. The good news is that with research and medical advancements, a diagnosis doesn’t always carry the “automatic death sentence” connotation it once had. There are more than 12 million survivors who are learning to live beyond cancer, and many are seniors. For them, the experience presents challenges for how to move forward, pursue better health and maintain a higher quality of life. Mike Adsit is one of them, and he’s here to tell you those challenges are opportunities to remake your life.
Prior to 2001, Mike was too engaged with a high-stress career and family duties to pay much attention to his fitness and health. Intellectually, the father of three and grandfather of four was always committed to improve life for society, but admits he did not make the personal connection. He grew up on a large family farm and advanced his ambition after attending college to become Illinois Gov. Dan Walker’s director of energy at the age of 27, helping that state launch some of the first energy conservation programs in the 1970s. As a result, he moved into the solar energy field as a marketing services executive with an architectural firm in Pittsburgh, then with a larger company in New York City for two years before starting his own successful green construction company in Milford, Pennsylvania. Life was good, and then at 51 the diagnosis came that would change his world: Mike had Stage 3, non- Hodgkin lymphoma.
While recovering from his first rounds of chemotherapy, Mike flipped the TV channel onto the 2001 Tour de France cycling classic and became inspired by Lance Armstrong’s story of overcoming cancer. Once treatments were completed, Mike took up the mountain bike that had been collecting dust in his basement and started exercising. He then signed up for coaching to raise his fitness level, improved his nutrition, and soon found himself feeling the adrenaline rush of competition.
Despite needing ongoing treatment after a relapse in 2003, Mike persisted with his newfound cycling passion and discovered Senior Games two years later, where he was further inspired to be competing with athletes of his own age and outlook. The road did not get easier, with cancer looming as a constant companion. The small cell lymphoma morphed into a more dangerous large cell form in 2012, but a stem cell replacement treatment kicked the disease to the curb. His doctors gave him a positive prognosis and released him from further treatment in 2013. Though still not back to full strength, Mike refused to stay away from the 2013 national games in Cleveland and considered simply finishing his time trial as a great victory.
Now, with cancer hopefully in his rear view mirror, Mike Adsit’s priority is to achieve a balance in his life. He still burns to stay fit and to race his way to the medal stand at 2015 National Senior Games presented by Humana in Minnesota, but he finds equal fulfillment with new ventures, his personal relationships and continuing to help mentor other lymphoma and stem cell survivors. That sounds like the perfect Personal Best attitude to have.
Looking at you today Mike, it’s hard to imagine a time you when were unhealthy and not racing on a bike.
The genesis of my cycling and competition came as a result of my cancer diagnosis in 2001. I had been running a busy construction company with 15 employees and it is a high stress business. At the time I weighed 285 pounds, had high cholesterol and did no exercise. I was an unhealthy husband, father and individual. A classic case for a heart attack or more.
Were you ever active or athletic?
I played some football in high school. And when I was working in Manhattan for two years I rode a bike to get around and commute. I tell you, cycling in New York City is a contact sport, especially in the 1980s when there were no bike lanes at all. It was an exciting way to live, but you took your life into your own hands with the cabbies trying to drive you off the road. (Laughs) After getting hit by a cab in 1983, I quit biking, and exercising, for 18 years.
So you were overstressed, overweight and sedentary. What happened next?
In early 2001, I thought I was passing a kidney stone. Instead, my docs told me my lymph nodes were very enlarged and the diagnosis turned out to be non-Hodgkin lymphoma. It was at Stage 3. It was in my abdomen, up in my neck, and down in my groin. It was an extreme wake up call.
Within a week, I started six rounds of chemotherapy. One day of intravenous chemo treatment, then six days of high doses of steroids to shrink the tumors. Then after two weeks, another treatment cycle. I managed to work a couple of hours a day, but spent a lot of time at home resting because I simply didn’t have the strength. You know, when you get cancer you go through this panic thing, wondering how you got it. And I learned that there are environmental and genetic factors. But a lot of cancers, especially blood cancers, are triggered by lifestyle- you know, high cholesterol, high sugar diets, no exercise and so on. That got me motivated me to do something.
So, during some recovery time I was watching the Tour de France, which I had never seen in my life, and they were talking about this guy Lance Armstrong, who I didn’t know from the Man in the Moon. They told about his cancer diagnosis, that he had a ten percent chance to live, and how he came back from his deathbed to win the Tour de France. I thought, “Wow, what an amazing story. You know, I need to change the paradigm of how I’m living my life.” I did an Internet search and read his first book.
So you changed your lifestyle, and cycling became your fitness regimen?
Yes. The next spring after my first lymphoma treatments, I thought about getting back in condition with running, which I had only really done once in my life, and I didn’t find it satisfying. But I owned a mountain bike, which I had never ridden and sat in the basement of my office. So I started riding. At first, I couldn’t go a half a mile without getting off and walking it. (Laughs) But that’s how it got started.
So Lance Armstrong was an inspiration to change. Was he the catalyst to move you from riding a bike for exercise to becoming a competitive cyclist?
It was a process. During that next year after the first treatments, I followed the 2002 Tour de France on TV and this commentator, Chris Carmichael, talked about how he coached Lance and described his structured program that is based on a program that the East Germans developed for Olympic training. It’s really the fundamental for how cyclists train today, where you basically alternate high intensity or overstressed workouts with sessions of recovery rather than just riding 100 miles on the bike. Anyway, Chris had developed an online coaching and training concept where you become a student of his CTS service and they assign you a coach who maintains an online and phone coaching program. So I signed up. I was assigned to Kelli Emmet, a young professional mountain bike racer. She’s still my coach today.
At that same time, Lance and Bristol Myers had sponsored and organized Tour of Hope, a charity project with a team of cancer-related people cycling on a route from Los Angeles to Washington, DC to raise awareness for cancer survivorship and to raise money for the Livestrong Foundation. So I set my training goal to ride the last 50 miles of this Tour. I did it with the help of the coaching.
When did you start racing and being in Senior Games?
As an A-type personality, I like to have a structured environment and goals to achieve. And, I didn’t want to disappoint my coach. Kelli was quite a driver. She kept amping the level up, and I kept amping up my training to respond. So the next year she asked, “Why don’t you try racing?” I had never really thought about it for myself. There was a time trial going on near me, so I entered it. There were three men in my 55+ age group, and I won the time trial in my first try. I was hooked! (Laughs)
In 2003, the lymphoma relapsed and came back again. My oncology team started me on a somewhat experimental treatment using a monoclonal antibody. Today Rituxian is now a standard treatment for lymphoma. It suppressed the disease again, and the docs had me come back every three months for the next eight years to keep the cancer in remission. But I wasn’t going to let it prevent me from pursuing competitive cycling.
In 2005 the National Senior Games were coming to Pittsburgh, and I heard about it, living in Pennsylvania. By then I was doing races regularly, so I thought, that sounded really cool and a lot of fun. But, I found out you had to qualify the year before. So, I set competing in the 2007 National Senior Games as one of my goals. In 2006 I competed in the Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Hampshire and Connecticut state games. I qualified in every one of them. So I met my goal and competed at the National Senior Games in Louisville in 2007.
How was the National Senior Games experience?
Amazing, I have to tell you. I was awestruck, and not just by the Olympic atmosphere and the cycling competition, which was significant because there were over 70 guys in my age group at the time. I had been doing a lot of races where most of the racers were like 25 to 35, maybe 40 years old with another two or three older guys sprinkled in the mix.
But when I got to Louisville I was just dumbstruck. There were like 12,000 athletes there, and the whole city was filled with really fit people of my age and older. It was amazing that there were all of these people doing all these sports, and they’re all dedicated to fitness and competition. At the same time, the tenor was different. There are certain athletes in Senior Games who have that kill-or-be-killed mindset like you find in most competitions. But for the most part, there’s this appreciation for everyone else there who also worked their way up, are keeping fit and are still competing. I mean, to watch an 85 year old cyclist race just blows me away.
This competition attitude at state games is the same way. I really like racing with other people my age. It’s a nice atmosphere. Everybody’s competitive, but at the same time people shake hands and are happy for each other.
So the National Senior Games became a regular goal for you?
Yes, but I had to pass on the 2009 games in Palo Alto. At that time my construction business was down and I really couldn’t pull the finances to make the trip to California. But I made it to Houston in 2011. I was in my best shape and finished 7th i n the time trials. At that time, my goal was to go to Cleveland and be on the medal podium in 2013. I had developed the skill and I was training hard.
But after I qualified in 2012, the lymphoma came back again. It had actually changed from the small cell into a much more aggressive large cell type. My docs at Hackensack University Medical recommended an autologous stem cell transplant. So, I went into very heavy chemotherapy treatments. I had to have five extensive, in-hospital chemotherapy sessions. After the third treatment they harvested my stem cells and saved them. The next two chemo sessions drove my white blood cell count down to zero, after which they transplanted the saved stem cells back into my body. There is like a 70 to 80 percent remission rate from this procedure. After nine days in isolation to allow for my immune system to rebuild, I was discharged on Thanksgiving. It was rough. They kept me in the hospital for four days during each chemo treatment. I lost all my hair and felt weak, but each time, within three days of finishing treatment, I would get on the bike. I couldn’t train, but at least I could ride and walk. Honestly, the level of my past training got me through the treatments with flying colors because I was so strong and my system was so balanced in terms of nutrition and fitness.
I really knew that I likely would not be in very competitive shape for Cleveland. My docs said I couldn’t start outside training until March of 2013 because after the transplant, there’s another 3 or 4 months that your immune system is compromised. So my goal was to recover well enough just to be there. If nothing else, I would consider that a victory. Kelli and I decided it was best to skip the road races and concentrate on the time trials. My race results, in Cleveland were OK. Not as good as 2011, but it didn’t really matter to me.
How’s your health now? Are you still facing treatments?
I’m actually in complete remission now, hopefully. It’s quite eerie, after 11 years of being intimately connected to cancer on a three month basis with treatments. After the stem cell transplant, the oncologist told me, “You really don’t need to come see us anymore.” It was joyful and unnerving at the same time.
Kind of felt like leaving home again, eh?
It was absolutely like that. You can feel like you’re attached to the healthcare system by an umbilical cord. You talk to most cancer survivors, and they will say there’s not a day that goes by that you don’t think about it, even after 20 years. But I truly believe in my heart now that I’ve been cured and I’m moving down that road.
You know, this whole experience has been cathartic. Pre stem cell, I was pretty much driven by this need to be a top level athlete. Post stem cell, I’m looking for more balance in my life. You know, 30 years ago I started my own real estate and construction company in Milford, Pennsylvania. Currently, I’m actually turning the business over to one of my employees and semi-retiring up to Michigan.
You’re from Illinois and have been in Pennsylvania for over 30 years. Where does Michigan come in?
(Laughs) Well, it comes in because I wanted to be closer to my 89-year old parents, and because of a really cool lady there, and, a lot ties back into my cycling life. I was married for 24 years but was divorced some years ago. I mentioned my coach Kelli Emmett I’ve had since 2002. Well, a few years ago Kelli was coaching a cycling camp in Arizona and I met her mother Mary there. We got to know each other, riding together, and one thing led to another over a period of three years. Mary owns an apple orchard and cider mill outside of Ann Arbor. She’s in the process of converting the farm into an organic operation, so I’m putting on my farming hat and helping her out.
We have a wonderful relationship that I’m committed to, and what we’re doing on the farm is exciting with growing healthy trees and producing nutritious food. In that context, I’m almost entering another career. I continue to have the desire to be a competitive athlete and I’m in that process of working out that balance. I cannot think of a greater thing than to be like those guys in their 90s I saw cycling in Cleveland.
I’ve used this cancer experience to re-quantify things. It’s actually turned out to be one of the better things that’s happened to me. No matter whether it’s a minor or major cancer, there’s no way that it doesn’t become a cathartic process in a person’s life. It changes how you look at life, and, I believe, things become a lot more precious. You can either duck under the covers, or you can stand out and say “I’m a cancer survivor, I’m alive and I need to do things differently.” I tell every survivor I speak with to look at how you’re living; reset your priorities; you can be healthier and happier.
You talk to other cancer survivors? Is that informally or as a volunteer?
Both. I’ve done a lot of racing and do other events raising money for Livestrong. I often wear a Livestrong cycling uniform in competition. A lot of people know I’m a survivor, and they come up to me at events and races and mention a friend or family member dealing with cancer. Frequently they ask if I would give them a call. I’m happy to do it. I know what it’s like to go through it and to be a survivor, so I know how giving a pat on the back can be very helpful.
I’m also involved with another organization, Immerman Angels. that is based in Chicago. They connect me, one on one, with other lymphoma or stem cell survivors who might need some encouragement. I don’t give medical advice, it’s more like mental support and cancer survival coaching. I do these calls all the time and it’s very rewarding.
What do you tell others who haven’t had your experience?
In high school and college most of us are active, and then we get into this grind of family, career and everything else. We think we’re going to be fit forever and then all of the sudden, we’re 45 and there’s heart problems or other issues. The generation before me had this knee jerk reaction to go to the doctor and get a pill for whatever ails you. People are realizing now that the medical system is not going to always deliver the miracles.
So I tell people that good health, good nutrition and active fitness is entirely up to you. I wish I had learned that earlier.