4-time cancer survivor goes from heart transplant to Ironman

"You have lymphoma." On September 26,1989, these three dreadful words changed then-18-year-old Kyle Garlett's world forever. Now, more than 20 years later, four-time survivor of two different kinds of cancer (Hodgkin's disease and leukemia) and a recipient of a new heart, Kyle considers himself "one of the lucky ones" living a full, healthy, and inspired life. Shine talked to Kyle about his journey, his struggles, the power and strength of the human spirit, and his ultimate goal.

Diagnosis One: Kyle was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease five weeks after his 18th birthday.

"You kind of step outside of yourself for a bit. You are eighteen and you think are indestructible - planning the next seventy years of your life - then all of a sudden you hear a cancer diagnosis and it doesn't feel real. It feels like you are living in an after-school special. You are stunned. It is a shot to the gut. It knocks the wind out of you. I went and spent the afternoon with friends just kind of laughing and making the transition from "Wow, this is really bad" to "OK, this is something we have to do so we'll figure out how to do it."

Every day after school for the next five months, Kyle drove to the hospital for radiation therapy.

Diagnosis Two: He attended the University of Missouri and remained cancer-free during his freshman year. But in June of 1991, he was re-diagnosed with Hodgkin's.


"I existed somewhat normally my first time around. My second time around I was 100% a cancer patient. At that point, I went through six months of chemotherapy and that was a very different thing. I lost all of my hair, I looked very sick, I was on high dosages of the steroid prednisone, which caused me to swell up and get what they call a moon face. I lost all strength, I was sick all the time, so for that year I didn't go to school."

Diagnosis Three: In November of 1994, after almost three years of being cancer-free, the Hodgkin's disease returned for a third time. Both radiation and chemotherapy had failed, and with few other options to explore, doctors decided to do a bone marrow transplant. The transplant involved a course of intense chemotherapy, destroying nearly every cell of bone marrow before the stem cells could restart the system.

"At a certain point, all of your blood counts crash and then they just wipe out your immune system. It's like they throw you off a boat into the water, you sit there and start to sink, and then they throw you the life preserver. That's kind of how the treatment goes and hopefully you are lucky enough to catch the life preserver. I was lucky enough to catch the preserver and made it through the bone marrow transplant."

Diagnosis Four: More than two years removed from the bone marrow transplant, Kyle had graduated from college and was working as a sports writer at Fox Sports Net when he was diagnosed with a secondary leukemia on July 23, 1997. The acute lymphocytic leukemia had been caused by the chemotherapy drug VP-16, which was given to Kyle during the bone marrow transplant.

"I truly believed I had been handed my death sentence. I was no longer a rookie. I had read a lot about it, I knew what kinds of things were happening to my body and I knew what leukemia meant. I also knew that getting leukemia from chemotherapy made it even worse, and I knew that because of my weak heart (due to the chemo drug Adriamycin), they couldn't treat me as aggressively as they might have someone healthier. I really thought when the doctor told me that I had leukemia that he was basically telling me that I was going to die."

Three long years of chemotherapy followed.


"Most days were pretty long and I was pretty sick and there was a lot of pain involved. So what I tried to do was just focus on trying to have a good half an hour every day, then I could use that to get me to the next day. That half hour could be a friend coming by to talk baseball. Each morning when I would wake up I would try to figure out where I could find those thirty minutes. It was really about the people in my life. I really enjoyed my time with them and I wasn't ready to quit. At that point I had thought a lot about my own death and I'd come to the realization that I wasn't afraid of dying, but I was sure not ready to be done living."

Doctors came up with a course of chemotherapy that cured the leukemia without causing any further damage his already weakened heart. After four bouts with two different kind of blood cancer, Kyle was free of cancer, but his heart condition was continuing to deteriorate. It eventually landed him on a heart transplant list in 2001. More than five years later, Kyle got the call: a donor heart had been found and was waiting for him.

"The heart transplant was different because they were actually going to be restoring me. It was scary, but there was also some excitement because I knew eventually the cloud would lift and on the other side of the cloud, I would find what could pass for normal life. I would be getting stronger as each day passed."

Throughout his battle, Kyle recognized that "the meaning in our own lives comes from helping others." He has since devoted his life to serving others through his motivational speaking, his writing (his memoir "Heart of Iron" comes out this November), and a commitment to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and their Team in Training Program. Team In Training helps train nearly half a million runners, walkers, triathletes, cyclists and hikers, who, raise money to fund lifesaving cancer research. Kyle began training and competing in triathlons.

Eleven months after his heart transplant, Kyle crossed the finish line of his first race as a triathlete in the 2007 Nautica Malibu Triathlon and is now training for "his Everest": to be the first heart transplant recipient to complete the Kona Ironman in Hawaii.

Why?

"Because I can. Because I shouldn't be able to. Because for so long I couldn't. Because there are so many I know who never will. Because the scars on my chest, hip, and shoulder tell my story. They tell the story of my heart donor - a man who exited this world far too early, but in death left behind the most precious gift imaginable."


Kyle believes that the strength of the human spirit is what gets us through the tough times.


"The nice thing about being down in the valley is that there is always a mountain on the other side of it. You just have to get through that valley and once you do, you can start to climb out again. No sadness or pain or fear is permanent. There is always something good around the corner. There is a lot of beauty in life. Most of it can be found in the people that populate our lives, the close relationships, but even in the total strangers."

Click here to support Kyle's Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's "Man of the Year" campaign.

Follow Kyle and his quest for the Ironman.