Jeff Keith had his right leg amputated when he was 12. He went on to captain the Fairfield Prep ski team and play goal for the Boston College lacrosse team. He ran across America on one leg.
That's right. One leg. Nine months. Boston to Los Angeles via Connecticut and the Mojave Desert, he raised $1 million dollars for the American Cancer Society.
Not only has he survived cancer for 38 years; he helped found three nonprofit organizations that have raised more than $75 million.
Maybe it's just me, but I figure Jeff Keith has serious, serious cred when it comes to the discussion of living and battling — not surrendering to cancer. So listen up, because 50 percent of the men and 33 percent of the women reading this will endure the battle during their lifetime.
"Having been in the trenches, I realized there were three things that could help people: exercise, nutrition and support groups or psycho-social," Keith said. "That's exactly what they do at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I said why not create the Olympic Training Center for cancer survivorship?"
That is the essence of the Connecticut Challenge Center For Survivorship — the only such stand-alone facility in the nation — that Keith co-founded and opened nine months ago in Southport. The first amputee to run across the country, a guy who later would become a successful investment banker before dedicating himself full-time to the center, can go on and on with the nuances. But he stops himself.
"Look," Keith said, "this isn't rocket science.
"We are working with researchers to prove exercise and nutrition is making a dramatic impact on cancer survivorship … yoga, Pilates, meditation, nutrition classes [not to mention spin-biking, Zumba, and acupuncture]," Keith said. "Everything we do here is evidence-based. Harvard did a study two years ago with breast cancer survivors that showed exercise reduces the risk of cancer by 50 percent. Thirty percent of all cancers can be avoided with a healthy lifestyle, so we're into prevention, too."
This brings us to the ninth annual CT Challenge Bike Ride July 26 and 27 in and around Fairfield. More than 1,000 riders will take part, ages 7 to 75. At a time when the world's most famous bike race is going on, it is worth noting that this is not the Tour de France. There are no cheaters here. The competition is for fundraising: The average rider raises $1,300, and 88 cents of every dollar raised goes directly to program services. Last year, $1.6 million was raised. The goal this year is $2 million. People from 18 states and 10 countries are taking part. There are 10-, 25-, 50-, 75- or 100-mile courses on the 27th. There is an 85-mile ride from Lakeville to Fairfield on the 26th.
The reality is one in two men and one in three women will get cancer. Find me a family untouched by cancer and together we can christen that family touched by an angel. The good news is American cancer survivors will grow from 14 million to 20 million by 2020.
"It also creates problems," Keith said. "People say you're done with treatment, you're fine. Go tell that to pediatric survivors with major issues. The Wall Street Journal had a huge article a few weeks ago that 95 percent of pediatric cancer survivors will have life-threatening, chronic health problems when they get older because of the drugs, chemo treatments, massive radiation."
Two major issues, Keith said, are depression and chronic fatigue. Yet fewer than 10 percent of all cancer centers, community-based hospitals and oncology practices are equipped with comprehensive survivor programs. Beyond what goes on at the 8,000-square foot facility, the center distributes educational brochures, awards college scholarship for survivors and is involved in pilot research projects. The center partners with hospitals around the state and, in all, impacts the lives of 54,000 survivors around New England.
"So what's the goal?" Keith said. "Give a road map. Empower. Give survivors something daily, weekly, monthly. Some did not grow up as athletes, but now they're going to live as a Division I athlete. Cancer survivors have a 30 percent chance of a second cancer, and many feel as if they've been dropped off the cliff after treatment. You're done, come back in two years to be checked. Oncologists are trained in drugs, not nutrition and exercise.
"We call them the lost generation. They don't know where to turn to. We can set them up, educate them. We certainly don't have all the answers. We feel we have many."
The answers started when Keith was playing hockey at 12, fell into the boards and an X-ray showed not only a crack in his knee, but a large malignant tumor [Osteogenic sarcoma]. His leg was amputated above the knee Christmas Eve 1974, yet six weeks later he was skiing at Haystack Mountain in Vermont.
Pop Warner football, peewee hockey, Little League baseball, it set him up for the greatest challenge of his life: living with one leg and all the ramifications of chemo blasts that shocked his body for 18 months. The barfing, the pain, the fatigue, all of it.
"The good news was the chemo was so new and novel, they didn't have time to tell us to sit at home," Keith said. "It wasn't until a couple of years later they said, you should be sedentary. That totally changed a year ago. After 30 years, an organization in London has recommended to cancer patients that while they're in treatment, exercise."
A 12-year-old kid could have told the medical geniuses that 38 years ago.
"It wasn't because I was so smart, it was because every day my whole life was involved in sports," Keith said. "I wasn't thinking about walking down the hall. I was thinking when can I ski, when can I play baseball. They looked at me like I had two heads, but they didn't say anything. I was 12. I wanted to play in the NFL."
It was that youthful athletic spirit that pushed him to say yes when others were thinking no. Keith didn't make the NFL, but he did do all sorts of triathlons. He did ski. He did play lacrosse. He watched "Breaking Away" at least 40 times. Then he'd go out and cycle on a big, bulky wooden leg.
Keith battled, kept battling and, well, maybe Terry Fox dying on Keith's birthday in 1981 while running across Canada was something more than coincidence. By this time, he had a much more refined prothesis as he ran across America in 1984 and 1985. There he was shaking Ronald Reagan's hand, throwing out the first pitch at a Mets game and — the first time I ever saw him in person — dropping the puck at the 1986 NHL All-Star Game at the Hartford Civic Center.
He would help found three cancer-support organizations, also Swim Across the Sound and Swim Across America. Gold medalists Rowdy Gaines and Steve Lundquist have been friends since the 1980s and that's how he became intrigued with the Olympic Training Center. Lance Armstrong's Livestrong raised $600 million before he was asked to leave. Projects Jeff Keith helped found have raised $75 million. Maybe we should all be asking him to stay.
"Light the fire, advance the field, that's what we want to do," Keith said. "It would be incredible if these kind of centers spring up around the country, and I believe they will. But you also could argue what we're promoting is nothing new and it can translate to MS and other diseases. We're building people's immune systems.
"At the end of the day, this will save this country money. Call it cancer rehab or continuum or survivorship. Call it what you want. I just want to promote a healthy lifestyle and be serious about it."
The dude ran from Boston to Los Angeles, 3,300 miles on one freaking leg. I'd say Jeff Keith is plenty serious.
If you are interested in participating in the CT Challenge Bike Ride, go to http://www.ctchallenge.org.