As a brisk morning ripens into a glorious spring day, Adam gulps down a handful of medicine and supplements and soon is jogging toward Downtown Memphis, his steady gait giving no hint that his hips have been rebuilt and his body is still reeling from more than 1,000 chemotherapy doses.
Block by block, Adam pushes ahead, accompanied by three supporters. Not usually one to hold back, he nonetheless heeds the advice of his running coach.
“There’s no reason to push — we can’t overdo it,” Lisa Sanchez-Sullivan had told him. “You know when it doesn’t feel right.”
Three miles into the run the group does come to a halt, if only momentarily. Within sight of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, they pose for a selfie and turn around for the return leg.
St. Jude is what this run is all about, anyway. Adam is training for the St. Jude Rock ‘N’ Roll Nashville half marathon on April 27. In June, he plans to climb onto a bicycle for the St. Jude Big River Ride, followed by his participation in the St. Jude Walk/Run in September.
Then comes his biggest fitness test to date: running the full St. Jude Memphis Marathon in December.
For the 21-year-old Adam, the events represent a special type of endurance — both physical and mental. They’re part of a marathon effort, if you will, to collect dollars to symbolically repay the hospital that saved his life.
Toward that end, he’s raised more than money. He’s raised an army — Adam’s Army, as it is known. In just four years, this international group of supporters has generated more than $700,000 in donations to the hospital.
Adam’s goal now is push that total to $1 million. Whether he achieves it by the end of this year — his preference — or by the time he’s 26 and is officially considered cured, he’s sure of the outcome.
“It will happen,” he says.
An overwhelming disease
Cancer is nobody’s idea of a day at the beach, but Adam, with metaphorical flourish, has a way of describing it like that. Except in his telling there’s a “little tsunami” involved.
Life before the disease, he says, is like sitting in the sand, enjoying the sunshine and the view of the ocean. All of the sudden cancer, in the form of a large, powerful wave, engulfs its victims and sweeps them out into the sea, far from their past lives, and tosses them around in dangerous currents.
“And then, after everything, it kind of just lays you back on the beach to a different life, a life that you didn’t really know existed,” he says.
As much as any patient, Adam can speak to the turbulent tides and upheavals attending a cancer ordeal. His began in late July 2014, when he was just 16 and in the middle of what he would later call the best summer of his life. He had trekked to Germany with a youth group, taken a beach vacation with his big sister. He hiked in North Carolina and rafted a whitewater river.
Mysteriously, however, he began experiencing intermittent hand pain, throbbing and excruciating. Although family and friends initially suspected arthritis, Adam received a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
As is so often the case with childhood cancer, the transformation was abrupt and traumatic. One day he was eating pizza and watching the sun sink over the Mississippi River with a friend. The very next, he was in the ICU of St. Jude getting chemotherapy as doctors fretted about his astronomical white blood cell count.
ALL, the most common childhood cancer, also is among the most survivable. Since St. Jude opened in 1962, the survival rate for the disease has soared from 4 percent to 94 percent for patients treated at St. Jude. Still, treatment is a long, rough process often involving some 30 months of chemotherapy.
Adam’s course was especially difficult. Early on during his treatment, he suffered pancreatitis. Doctors realized he was allergic to one of the main chemotherapy drugs, requiring a radical departure from the established protocol for treating ALL.
Though it would help save Adam’s life, the replacement drug wreaked havoc on his immune system. An air bubble formed in his chest, and later, his esophagus became partially blocked. For eight months, he wore a mask to fend off infections.
Despite the precautions, virus after virus infected him, and eventually he suffered septic shock. Of all the side effects, or “party favors,” as his mom Connie ruefully calls them, the most disturbing was a week-long bout with delirium.
“One thing after another kept happening,” Connie says.
‘He knew everything he was missing’
In many respects, Adam’s cancer experience showed that being an older patient has its peculiar downsides. Children who are afflicted at a very young age haven’t established a sense of normalcy that can be shattered by the disease. They don’t know what they’re missing.
That wasn’t the case for Adam. Like any teenager, he had tasted the fun and adventure that life can offer, only to have it brutally taken away.
“After his diagnosis, he became an angry, trapped teenager,” Connie says. “He knew everything he was missing.”
Making matters worse, chemotherapy was shutting down his immune system and weakening his hormones at around the time puberty should have been peaking.
The bitterness consuming Adam, however, wasn’t just about what was happening to him. He saw younger St. Jude patients, kids for whom he had felt a kind of responsibility, suffer and sometimes die.
Among them was a feisty 9-year-old named Carson with whom he had grown especially close. She needled Adam relentlessly, making a running joke of calling him a “disappointment” to St. Jude because he was, in her assessment, insufficiently brave and positive. She gave him a collection of attractive handmade straps for his face mask, emphasizing to him the importance of looking nice even when he didn't feel well. When Carson passed away in 2015, Adam served as a pallbearer at her funeral.
The myriad traumas — physical, emotional and mental — took a predictable toll. Adam suffers from depression, anxiety, survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. He periodically labors against Seasonal Affect Disorder.
Less than a year into his treatment, Adam and his mom knew something had to change. Even if the cancer didn’t kill him, the toxic side effects of anger, anxiety and sadness would.
Driven to pay back
Adam traces his fundraising efforts in part to needing to fill time during the tedium and discomfort of treatment. “It was kind of like therapy.”
He also was following the example of others, including Carson, who had pledged her piggy bank to St. Jude.
Adam learned that the alternative chemo regimen had helped push his total treatment costs to more than $3 million, although, like all other St. Jude patient families, Adam's family never got a bill from the hospital.
“People invested in me, so I’ve got to give back,” he says.
He studied fundraising methodology and formed Adam’s Army in 2015, its initial goal set at raising $100,000. Member teams took part in the St. Jude Walk/Run, as well as the St. Jude Ride and Marathon, that year.
But as Adam prepared for the half marathon during the St. Jude Memphis Marathon® Weekend in December 2015, another “party favor” from his treatment emerged. Doctors confirmed that his hips had been ravaged by avascular necrosis, an affliction that eats away the bone.
Trailed by a wheelchair, and under close monitoring by St. Jude medical staff, Adam completed the half marathon anyway. He crossed the finish line linked arm-in-arm with supporters. “Everybody was bawling. I can’t tell you how many people are on the team because they witnessed it,” Connie says.
Shortly after the race, Adam underwent surgery to reconstruct his hips. He completed his leukemia treatment in spring of 2017, and remains in remission. In an effort to help other patients, he's been open about the physical and emotional problems that still resurface occasionally.
As he prepares for the Nashville race — his fourth half marathon — Adam remains under the close guidance of St. Jude doctors. With help from an outside specialist, he’s working to overcome challenges from his treatment. And he looks to running coaches and trainers to help get ready. St. Jude doctors have cleared him to run the full marathon in December.
After Adam’s Army quickly surpassed the initial fundraising goal, the target moved continually higher.
“The first thing I learned about fundraising is when you hit one goal you just move it up to the next one.”
Since treatment ended, Adam has struggled somewhat to figure out who he is. For two-and-a-half years, he was the kid with cancer, the one who took chemo every other day.
For all the challenges that remain, Adam insists he’s found a measure of peace in knowing that his calling is to give back, to serve others.
That’s why, on a beautiful spring day, he’s jogging down a street in Memphis.
And that’s why, with each passing moment, that big cancer wave that pummeled him so harshly recedes farther and farther away, leaving him in the sun, with a whole new life ahead.