By Josh Perry, Special to Everyday Health
Seven years ago, I was sitting on top of the world. I was an otherwise regular 20-year-old kid from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, who had just won a major professional BMX (bike motocross) competition and had just participated in the most recent X Games — the Olympics of extreme sports. I was living my childhood dream and, needless to say, I was stoked.
Routine MRI Reveals Massive Tumor
Things changed forever several months later when I hit my head while riding. After the accident, I had a routine MRI scan, the results of which turned out to be anything but routine. The scan revealed a meningioma — a brain tumor growing from the outer linings of my brain and spinal cord — taking up the entire left side of my head.
After being told one variation of bad news after another, ranging from “You will never ride again” to “You won’t have long to live if this tumor is not immediately removed,” I was put in touch with neurosurgeon Allan H. Friedman, MD, at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. Dr. Friedman felt confident that he could remove the tumor and arranged to have my surgery scheduled immediately.
He explained that there were serious risks, including paralysis, loss of speech, blindness, hearing loss, stroke, and the ultimate risk: simply not waking up from the operation. The surgery involved putting me under heavy sedation and literally opening my skull. What could go wrong?
During a six-hour procedure, the tumor was successfully removed. Thankfully, I woke up pain-free and with a smile on my face, surrounded by the people I love most in the world: my parents; my brother, Danny; and my friends. I was alive, back on track, and more determined than ever.
I was lucky to have a quick recovery and was back to competitive BMX riding within two months. I learned — though it still seems almost impossible to fathom — that the skull can fuse back together in only four weeks following an operation like mine!
Two New Tumors Threaten Critical Artery
Before long, I had made a nearly full recovery and was riding professionally again. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to travel the world, and soon I found myself traveling to India to conduct bike demos and showcase BMX riding on behalf of my sponsor. The trip started off great, but once again things quickly went off the rails: I got an email from my mom saying the results from a recent MRI showed I had two new tumors in my brain. They were only the size of blueberries, but they were close to a critical artery and would need to be dealt with soon.
I was 8,000 miles from home, totally alone, and scared as hell. After feeling sorry for myself and repeatedly asking, “Why me?”, I decided that I wasn’t going to let the tumors take control of my life. I put my headphones on and imagined myself doing what I love most: riding ramps, pulling huge tricks, and feeling like I’m flying. I turned that fear, confusion, and devastation into the energy I needed to get past this latest challenge.
I consulted Dr. Friedman again. This time he suggested that a radiation-based treatment might be the best option because there were many potential complications of traditional surgery, and he was concerned about the tumors’ proximity to my artery.
Following a period of research, my family and I concluded that Gamma Knife radiosurgery, which delivers a high dose of radiation to a precise area without harming surrounding tissue, was the way to go. The procedure, I was told, is quick, painless, almost completely noninvasive, and has a short recovery time. Best of all, the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery, Julian K. Wu, MD, of Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told me that it was clinically proven and had a success rate of about 85 percent — odds that I could live with.
This ended up being a critical decision-making process in my life and really set the tone for how I approach health-related decisions today. We are all our own best health advocates and need to be champions for ourselves. In my case, many different neurosurgeons may have had completely different opinions about my course of treatment, but I knew this was the right path for me.
The procedure involved having a lightweight frame attached to my head to keep it still. Then I had a single treatment of radiation delivered to three different parts of my tumor.
Since the surgery required no incisions whatsoever, my recovery was even quicker than the first time, and I was back on my bike in only seven days, feeling like nothing had happened. But I’d be lying if I said my life wasn’t permanently changed.
From Surgery Patient to Health Coach
Dodging a bullet twice made me reevaluate life from all angles, and I became increasingly interested in the concept of holistic living and how nutrition decisions impact our overall health. In February 2014, I enrolled in the online Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and a year later received my certification as a holistic health coach.
I’m incredibly grateful to say that my story has had a happy ending. I’m busier than ever these days, splitting my time between BMX riding and helping others achieve their health and well-being goals.
A big part of my job is pushing myself to reach the next level, both physically and mentally. Pulling off big tricks, however, sometimes results in hard falls. If there’s one thing I’ve come to realize, it’s that the most important thing is to always be willing to get back on the bike and on with life. I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m still here. We can all relate to falling down, but the difference we can make in our lives is getting up and trying again.
Josh Perry is a 28-year-old pro BMX athlete who lives in Apex, North Carolina, and blogs at DailyBrainStorms
Photos provided by Josh Perry.
Last Updated: 6/8/2017