Sterling Kwong didn’t have much to celebrate the day after Cinco de Mayo in 2002. On May 5th, he found himself in the waiting room of his brand new primary care physician. Sterling noticed a suspicious lump in his left testicle. Dr. Rosario's next words set off a tumultuous change of events that would forever change him. Dr. Rosario shook his head and stated matter-of-factly, "I think it might be a mass." The doctor ordered an ultrasound – stat.
Four days later, he had an urgent consultation with an urologist. Dr. Marinelli said, “I’m 99% sure it’s cancer. Whether it’s cancer or not, it has to come out.” “It was the size of a wasabi pee,” Sterling explained, “I was lucky. Often, testicular cancer (TC) patients aren’t even aware of a lump to warrant a treatment. It came on suddenly.”
He was 31-years old at the time. He added, “I almost considered not renewing my health insurance, thinking I was young and healthy. I’m glad I did or I would’ve been horribly in debt. “
Since he had recently finished his equivalency degree in music therapy, his career hadn’t taken off yet. He still needed to finish an internship before he could become a Board Certified Music Therapist. He lived at home with his parents who had immigrated from China in the sixties.
He realized there was no way he could keep the job he had with his illness. But the one thing he had to do was keep his cancer a secret from his dad. His mother, who was so protective of both her husband and son, thought it was for the best. You see his dad’s health was fragile. He had been hospitalized the year before for three weeks with congestive heart failure and congestive lung failure. Sterling honored her wishes.
The weekend before his surgery in early June, ten of his friends took him on a fishing trip to June Lake in Mammoth. His buddy, Lou Garzon, gave him Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About the Bike. “It was a good time to focus on what was important to me in my life,” he recalled, “My first priority was to fight it. “
The following Monday, he had his left testicle removed. “They took it out from up above to avoid spreading the cancer. I had a five-inch incision in my groin. It looks like a c-section scar. ” Sterling explained. The surgery was an outpatient procedure. He was home – trying to hide his excruciating pain – by 1:00 p.m.
It was the first major step to becoming cancer-free. While he recuperated from the operation, he continued to do research on his disease, which afflicts 7,000 men between the ages of 18 and 35 each year. Despite the rarity of this disease, it is still the most common form of cancer that is diagnosed in young men of those ages.
He scheduled appointments with oncology specialists. He saw Dr. Derek Raghavan at USC Norris Cancer Center, and Dr. Richard Lloyd at St. Jude Medical Center. These two men agreed to work in concert to become part of Sterling's recovery. They discovered that it was mostly embryonal carcinoma. Further testing determined the protocol of how to best treat his disease.
His doctors agreed that his treatment would utilize platinum-based chemotherapy agents. Sterling was quite familiar with this treatment because he read all the gory details of Lance Armstrong's treatment in his book. In fact, it was Lance's doctor, Dr. Larry Einhorn, who pioneered the use of platinum to treat testicular cancer. In the 80's before platinum chemotherapy was utilized in testicular cancer patients, TC carried a most certain death sentence. Amazingly now because of platinum, TC is now one of the most treatable forms of cancer.
Sterling opted to receive his treatment at St. Jude. His doctor ordered multiple CT scans, chest x-rays, and blood tests. There were a couple of spots on his lungs that metastasized. By the time he started his first round of chemo, he had four nodes on his lungs and two behind his kidneys. He didn’t feel well. The cancer set his endocrine system off like a raging fire. The cancer affected everything – from his hormones to his energy levels.
The thought of chemotherapy frightened him. Chemotherapy is sometimes described as using a shotgun to shoot at a pinhole. It is a horribly cruel form of treatment. Dr. Raghavan warned him of the potential for hearing loss, secondary leukemia, fibrosis of the lungs, and hair loss. He also said, “There’s a 100% chance you’ll die without chemotherapy.”
To prepare for the treatment and help keep his mom’s secret, he had his mom buzz off his mane of hair with the home clippers. “I told my dad it was my summer cut,” he admitted with a chuckle.
The next hurdle was explaining why he would be gone for a week in the hospital to receive his first treatment. “My mom told him I was on a business trip,” he said. “But you didn’t have a job!” this interviewer interjected. “I know. It was crazy!” he replied with a laugh.
He had chemotherapy for three cycles that involved a full week of inpatient hospitalization while the platinum was administered. This was followed by two weekly outpatient treatments. "It was a total of nine weeks, which felt like an eternity." They gave him Bleomycin, a plant-derived alkaloid as a "mop up" chemotherapy drug. “Bleomycin made me really sick. I broke out in high fevers, shaking, night sweats, and nausea,” he said. "Even my eyelids were achy."
Four weeks into his chemotherapy treatment, he tried to recoup his strength. So did his dad. They were sitting around the kitchen table, sipping Brands Chicken Essence, a Chinese concentrated chicken extract broth with reported health benefits. Sterling explained, "The broth comes out of tiny jars. We were like a couple of cowboys hunched over at a bar,” he recalled fondly, “My dad turned to me and said, ‘Sterling, I’m really worried about you. Why are you spending so much time at home? You’re not working. And you’re not doing anything with your life right now.’”
He noticed that Sterling was sleeping the day away. His mom anxiously paced in and out of the kitchen as she overheard this conversation. “Right then, I just had to tell my dad, ‘I have cancer. I’m in a struggle for my health and my life right now. This is why I’m not working Dad.’ I really wanted to tell my dad as soon as I found out. I was afraid of his reaction, because I had to break my word with my mom. However, he was quiet – even a bit stoic. He was really careful with his words. I knew he understood me completely. He mentioned, ‘Oh, I know Scott Hamilton and Lance Armstrong are also testicular cancer survivors.’ From that moment on, my relationship with my father had totally changed. I felt his compassion just with the look in his eyes. We didn’t have to acknowledge it verbally.”
It was not only a relief to Sterling that the truth was revealed, but to his friends and cousins who checked in on him and regularly emailed to ask, “Have you told your dad yet?”
Another huge source of encouragement was The Wellness Community (TWC), a support group for young adults with cancer. “They became my salvation to face life again,” he acknowledged. With their love and support through the weekly meetings he began to piece together the meaning of cancer in his life.
A month after his last chemo treatment, Sterling found an internship at a psychiatric hospital under the supervision of one of his teachers, Lisa Jackert. She modified his work schedule to allow him to continue his recuperation. Sterling was still soft-spoken, bald and tired all the time.
By the following spring in 2003, six months after his chemo ended, Sterling started to feel like his old self again. He secretly eyed a flier posted at The Wellness Community that fall. It was an invitation to run in the Vancouver Marathon, if he could do some fundraising on behalf of The Wellness Community. He wanted to give back to The Wellness Community that had done so much for him. He decided to give it a go. Though a knee injury prevented him from running the full marathon in 2004, he finished his first half marathon. He was a bit disappointed in his time, but he knew immediately that he wanted to come back and run the full marathon in Vancouver.
His dad passed away two months later on Father’s Day. He also saw another close friend in his support group pass away Jolie Ross – the wife of his friend Derek Ross. In the throes of grief, Derek challenged Sterling to race a triathlon.
In a hurried rush, just a few weeks before his first triathlon he asked his friend Lou, who knew a lot about bikes, to help him choose a bike. So he took Sterling down to Supergo in Fountain Valley to pick one out. "Lou has excellent taste and is first-class kinda guy. He picked out this bike and I looked at the price and I say ‘Really? Is this how much I really want to spend on a bike?’ It was sticker shock. I followed his advice and bought the bike, a Specialized Roubaix,” he explained with a laugh, “Then I immediately started falling all over the place. I still have scars on the back of my legs from the number of times I fell.“
His first triathlon was the 2004 Lake Arrowhead Sprint Triathlon at 5000-foot elevation. “When the volunteer went to mark my legs, she gasped at my scars. I told her ‘You can write my number really high on my leg,’” he recalled.
After a few strokes of the swim, he panicked and flipped over to backstroke the race. “Safety crews followed me and asked ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Yeah, I’m fine!’ I’m swimming all crooked,” he admitted. His buddy Derek instructed him, “Don’t let anyone on a mountain bike pass you!” Well, the race didn’t go as planned. A couple snuck past him. He had to walk his bike up a hill. On the run, he was out of breath. “It was so humiliating, but I was hooked,” he explained, “I had to learn how to get better at this sport!”
Sterling continued to find strength and inspiration from The Wellness Community. He still attended the weekly Young Adults support group. He continued receiving the A-OK from Dr. Lloyd. He really improved as a runner and began to love everything about being an endurance athlete. Things were looking up for him for a change. So he decided to step up to the challenge and return to Vancouver for the full marathon in 2005. Once again, he raced on behalf of The Wellness Community. He dedicated the race to the memory of his dad and had his teammate write in bold letters on his arm "Daddy I miss you." To commemorate this moment, he dyed his hair bright fire engine red for the event. He had his hair and his health again. Why not be bold and flash it? His friends cheered for him from the sidelines and called him “A Rock Star!”
While training Vancouver Marathon, he worked out with some friends from Runners High, some were accomplished Ironman athletes. “I’d hear about all their crazy workouts like 90-mile training rides and decided I wanted to do an Ironman too. “
There was a shift in Sterling’s thinking. Instead of worrying about the return of cancer, he was thinking forward to his next race. In 2006, he completed the Wildflower Olympic and Big Kahuna Half-Ironman triathlons. He hit the submit button for Ironman Arizona in 2007, but suffered a broken collarbone on a training ride. A dog ran across his path while he was riding the bike course in Tempe and he had no place to avoid tthe dog.
He continued working toward his goal, while caring for his mom who had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and continuing his full-time music therapist job.
In November 2008, he finally got his chance to compete in Ironman Arizona. The morning of the race another athlete offered him a pearl of wisdom, "This is the only piece of advice that I am going to tell you. This day is long enough that your race can actually improve over time." Sterling replied with an incredulous, "Really?!" Little did he know how prophetic that statement would be.
Almost immediately the wheels came off the wagon for Sterling. Something was wrong on the swim. His stomach was bloated and his legs cramped up. However, he still managed to finish the 2.4-mile swim in an hour and thirty-eight minutes.
On the bike, he it got even worse. He had trouble getting the pedals to turn over. Immediately he was nauseous and by mile 10 had to pull over and wretch for the first time. “Oh man, I can’t let my day end like this…I have to finish,” he recalled. The nausea and bloated feeling that he felt now felt reminded him of how sick he was with his chemotherapy treatments. None of the nutrition or hydration was staying down in stomach for very long.
Suffice it to say, the volunteers he met on the first and second loop of that ride were concerned. The most rotund guys in the whole race passed Sterling. Everyone left him in the dust. He really was tempted to abandon the race on the bike during the second loop. He was feeling woozy and unsure of himself . But he was determined to give it his best shot. The only way he wanted to go out was if a course marshal told him to stop.
His dear friend, Jill Fernandez, who was there to cheer him on with her nieces and nephew asked in a pleading sort of way, “Okay, Sterling, maybe on this third loop you could do a little better? Just go a little faster?” All of sudden, his stomach cleared up by the third loop. He made the turnaround of the third bike loop with nary a competitor in sight. It was a long road to face all alone.
He was able to honor Jill's request and pick up the pace on the third loop. He finished the 112-mile bike portion of the race with 10 minutes to spare before the cutoff. He felt much better by the run. This was his strength. He was carrying his cell phone for safety reasons. Around mile 21 of the marathon, he got a call from his concerned mother, “Sterling, I’m worried about you. How come I haven’t heard from you yet?” She’s a little hard of hearing. Sterling had to yell, “I’ve got five more miles!” How many?” she asked. “Mom, five more miles!” he said. “What?” she asked again. “Five more miles. I’ll call you when I’m done.” he practically screamed.
On those last few miles, a light bulb went off that he was almost there. He began to forget all the agony that it took to get him here thus far. "Wow that dude that I met this morning was so right!!" he thought to himself. He managed to sprain his right ankle and his left and right Achilles tendons began aching pretty badly during the marathon. His new mantra became, "Pain is temporary, glory is forever."
As Sterling neared the finish line, Jill handed him a Team Duke flag – the current cancer charity that Sterling represents. As he approached the finish chute, he heard the booming voice of Mike Riley make a legendary call, “Looks like we have a Team Duke supporter here. It is Sterling Kwong from Buena Park, California. You are an Ironman!”
While Sterling was standing punch drunk from the experience with a volunteer finisher catcher on either side of him, Jill asked, “How are you doing?” Sterling still can’t quite recall his reply. “I either said ‘That was dumb.’ Or ‘I feel numb,’” he said with a laugh. He finished the race in 16:22 – a good two hours over his expected time. Fifty days from now, he’ll have another chance to best that time when he competes in Ironman Wisconsin in September.
NOTE: If you have a good comeback story, please contact me at email@example.com. I’d like to interview you. I hope this will be one of many Comeback Kid stories. Here’s why.