Caitlin Adkins was 8 years old and on the verge of achieving her first back handspring in gymnastics — a milestone. Often, though, she was in terrible pain. Night after night, she woke her mom, Marybeth, asking for medicine to make it stop. Was it reasonable to give a child this much Tylenol? On the other hand, was it reasonable to accept “growing pains” as the cause of suffering like this?
The answers came with imaging. No, this was not the normal discomfort of a growing body. This was pain caused by a tumor in her pelvic bone so large it squeezed through her vertebrae, crowded her organs and triggered nerve endings in her spinal canal. A tumor the size of a football takes up a lot of space in an 8-year-old body. Reasonable pain relief, in fact, looked like three morphine patches and a morphine pump.
Caitlin never got the back handspring. But with the help of doctors at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital — and sheer determination on her part — she found herself in a gym once again, nearly two decades later. This one is co-owned by 11-time CrossFit Games athlete Ben Smith, and together, they're raising money for St. Jude, the place that saved Caitlin's life.
Against the odds
When Caitlin's Ewing sarcoma was diagnosed, the disease had the second-lowest survival rate of all childhood cancers, Marybeth recalled. And her's was stage 4: metastatic.
Step one was to quickly start chemotherapy, which Caitlin began receiving close to home. Then, in June 2002, she and her mom came to St. Jude in Memphis.
Caitlin underwent surgery to remove the tumor and determine if some of the pelvic bone needed to be removed. It didn’t, but “my stomach muscles had been cut through,” said Caitlin, “and core strength is really important when it comes to anything, so it was a process of learning how to walk again.”
She started with crawling. With time and effort she was able to get around using a walker. Then Caitlin — very into baby dolls at the time — graduated to being able to push a baby stroller around the ward. She kept working to rebuild her strength, kept challenging herself to reach the next goal, and the next, until all she needed was to hold onto the wall railing. And then — zoom.
“I couldn’t leave the room because I never knew when she was going to disappear,” said Marybeth. “She would take that IV pole and go. One day she took off and we found her in the pharmacy because she wanted to see where her chemo was coming from.”
After a year and a half, 30 radiation treatments and 48 weeks of chemotherapy, Caitlin was ready to move on. At one of her last appointments at St. Jude, she remembers her doctor congratulated her on how far she’d come and jokingly told her, “You can pretty much do anything you want — except maybe weightlifting.”
A community of support
Caitlin played softball and volleyball in high school. In the stands, her mom saw traces of what she’d been through. “By the way she ran, you could tell that she had learned to compensate for the pain. She could hit the ball, but she couldn’t make it to first base. She couldn’t run there fast enough, she was always out.”
So Caitlin asked for physical therapy to improve her running. She visited the batting cages before school, because if she could hit the ball further, she’d have more time to reach first base. “Five days a week, I was having to take her to school at 7 o’clock in the morning,” said Marybeth, “because if she can’t do it, she will work and work and work until she can.”
So, even though Caitlin didn’t set out to become a weightlifter, it’s also true she doesn’t shy away from a challenge. About five years ago, Caitlin tried CrossFit and was immediately hooked by the sense of community.
“There are so many different kinds of people, people of all different ages and lifestyles from all different walks of life," Caitlin said. "And you just encourage each other and push each other, and that is what keeps me going back every day.”
That feeling of community — family, almost — was familiar to Caitlin from her time at St. Jude. The pharmacist Caitlin bonded with was one of the reasons Caitlin knew she wanted to be a chemistry major by the time she entered college, and the two keep in touch to this day. Caitlin was so close with her St. Jude doctor, her mom jokes that Caitlin barely allowed him to retire. And Caitlin recently received a wedding gift from one of her St. Jude nurses, all these years later.
“They really were like our family when we were in Memphis,” said Caitlin. “And I definitely see that in my [gym] family as well.”
In March, Caitlin’s gym family will be showing up for her St. Jude family. Smith is organizing CrossFit Krypton’s Compete for a Cure for the fifth year at the gym he co-owns. Last year, they raised $112,000 for St. Jude, and they’re hoping to top that with this year’s fully virtual event on March 11.
Participation is open to the entire CrossFit community around the world, and there’s a division for at-home competition that requires no equipment, making it accessible to everyone. Caitlin will be competing from her garage — which, along with her backyard, has been her gym during the pandemic — in honor of all the kids at St. Jude today.
“Compete For A Cure is kind of a reminder to be thankful for what your body can do,” she said. “For me, it’s a reminder to honor the life I’ve been given and to make the most of it.”
“Caitlin got knocked down really hard, and she was able to get back up and do what she does,” said Smith.
A diagnosis like Caitlin’s could have taken everything away. But with St. Jude, and remarkable grit on her side, she overcame incredible odds — to come back, and to give back.