Eight years ago, Derek Garcia and his new wife went to downtown Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to check out the Ironman race taking place, but mainly to see if Espn would be there. Inspired by a day of watching triathletes swim, bike and run, Derek leaned in to his wife’s ear:
“I could do this.”
In May 2012, Garcia uttered those same words to his wife. Only this time, the first-year professional triathlete was attempting a 10-minute treadmill run. Just five days prior, Garcia had undergone an orchiectomy, surgery to remove one testicle.
This weekend, five months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, Garcia will race the Leadman Tri Life Time Epic 250 in Bend, Ore.
“It didn’t even cross my mind.”
Garcia had made the decision to take his pro card in January, committing to training with esteemed coach Paulo Sousa’s triathlon team. A few weeks after signing with Sousa, Garcia began to feel what he thought was a swollen testicle. Not one to overreact, Garcia attributed it to extra time in the bike saddle.
Though there was no pain, the testicle continued to swell over the next few months.
“By the beginning of April, I could not continue to ignore it,” says Garcia,” but I was in California at a training camp with my coach.”
During that camp, he called his wife, Shannon, who suggested he get it checked out by a doctor in California.
“I wasn’t worried at first,” recalls Shannon, “If it had been swollen from riding his bike, or catching a virus, or any one of the other explanations he had, it would have cleared up on its own. I mentioned having it checked out, but he decided to wait until camp was over.”
Garcia continued to minimize his symptoms. “Truthfully, I justified not going to the doctor because I really thought it was from the strenuous training I was doing. I kept rationalizing because I felt zero pain…I would cause unneeded drama if I went to the doctor. I always have been extremely healthy and I have absolutely no cancer in my family, so it didn’t even cross my mind.”
“It’s not possible.”
By the time Garcia went to the doctor, he was concerned, but still assumed the swelling was, at most, a cyst. His visit to the doctor was one item on his list of errands to run after being away from his wife and sons for four weeks during training camp. Soon, he would leave again, this time for New Orleans, his first race as a professional triathlete.
Dr. John Kim, Garcia’s physician at Kootenai Medical Center, ordered an ultrasound to determine the cause of the swelling.
Though the technician detected a mass, Garcia was told the ultrasound needed to be evaluated by an urologist. Garcia left the hospital and attended his wife’s college graduation ceremony that night.
Ten minutes after Shannon crossed the stage, Garcia got a call from the hospital. He had cancer and needed to get into surgery quickly.
“I wondered how I was going to tell my wife. We had planned on having 30 of our friends come over to celebrate following the ceremony and I didn’t know how I was going to hold it together.”
Shannon remembers her disbelief all too well. “It’s not possible. It may have been a shock/grief response, but I really didn’t think it was possible for Derek to have cancer with how healthy he was,” she said.
“Everything made sense.”
The day after the ultrasound, Garcia returned to Dr. Kim’s office to discuss the procedure, which would remove his testicle and biopsy the tumor to determine how developed the cancer had become. Based on the size of the tumor, the length of time Garcia had ignored the symptoms and the bout of pneumonia Garcia had experienced prior to his diagnosis (a sign the tumor had spread to the lungs, according to Dr. Kim) Garcia was told to prepare for the worst – six months of chemotherapy.
The news, of course, meant Garcia’s emerging career as a professional triathlete might need to be put on hold. Sharing the news with his coach was a difficult situation. However, Sousa understood:
“I noticed during the end of the training camp that Derek seemed uncharacteristically stressed out, but he didn’t share his symptoms with me,” Sousa says. “When, a week or so later, he told me the news, everything made sense. I was obviously shocked, but I tried to be supportive and offer any help I could.”
The surgery unearthed a large tumor, but Garcia was lucky, says Dr. Kim. The growth was encapsulated by normal testicular tissue, meaning the cancer had not spread. Further testing revealed certain biochemical markers were elevated, prompting his oncologist to recommend two courses of treatment: undergo six weeks of radiation treatment or observe closely. For Garcia, that meant participating in frequent blood tests and CT scans for the next five to 10 years.
After much discussion with additional medial professionals, Garcia and his wife decided he would opt out of the radiation treatment. Dr. Kim supported his decision:
“It is possible that his risk for recurrence is slightly elevated (statistically, Garcia has a 20 percent chance of recurrence without radiation; with radiation, 10 percent),” Dr. Kim explains. “The risk of radiation includes chronic pain, chronic irritation and possible neuropathy, or nerve pain. Thus, I believe he is making a sound decision.”
With that decision in hand, Garcia turned his focus to one thing: returning to triathlon training as soon as possible.
“Pain is his life!”
Four days after surgery, Garcia pleaded with his doctors to allow him to return to training. With a four-inch scar and swelling in his abdomen, doctors were reluctant to allow anything less than a two-week recovery. However, the tenacious Garcia won. On the fifth day, doctors said he could run, but only briefly, carefully, and under the watchful eye of his wife.
Shannon was less than pleased with her husband’s request. “Watchful eye is putting it nicely,” she says. “It was more like glaring eye! I was concerned about him overdoing it. Derek doesn’t do anything lightly.”
“The doctor told him, ‘Let pain be your guide,” Shannon notes, “I wanted to say, ‘He’s a professional triathlete! Pain is his life!”
That day, Garcia ran 10 minutes on the treadmill; the next day, twenty. On the eighth day, he rode his bike. Though happy to have his athlete back, Sousa was cautious.
“So much of my work is to motivate those to motivate those that need the motivation, but also hold back those who are overly eager to work too hard,” Sousa explains. “Derek was coming from a very intense period in his life and it was easy for him to make bad decisions when it comes to training. I focused in doing my job as a coach and advised Derek on what was best for him at the time.”
Worried that Derek was doing too much, too soon, Sousa structured Garcia’s training to emphasize consistency while avoiding stress on his immune system. Under a more sensible and conservative training schedule, Garcia quickly rebounded. In July, three months after his surgery, Garcia placed eighth overall at Calgary 70.3.
“In triathlon, things don’t always go according to plan…life is no different.”
This weekend, Garcia will race Leadman Tri Bend. The race, Garcia says, was a carrot dangling in front of his face during his ordeal.
“When I was first diagnosed, I had no concerned what it meant for my training or racing,” he says. “I just immediately thought about the burden that was going to be placed on my wife and two boys. When I did start to think about training and racing, I let myself be depressed for a day, then I decided it was a waste of time and that it was time to fight.”
“One can never plan or be prepared for a cancer diagnosis,” reflects Shannon, “In a triathlon, things don’t always go according to plan, but as my husband would say, it’s how you deal with it that makes the difference. Life is no different.”
After Leadman Bend, Garcia plans to race Rev3 Florida and Ironman Arizona. After, he will assess his plan for the future with his coach. However, Garcia will reveal one major date on his calendar: January 30, 2013, when Shannon is set to give birth to their third son.
“We got pregnant somehow after the surgery,” smiles Garcia, “which is a miracle in itself.”