Strength, determination, and perseverance are some of the most important traits that being a part of an athletic team can teach an individual. However, in the case of Ryan McGarry and the Penn State track program, Ryan was the one teaching the team the importance of these characteristics. At a time when he should have been worried about midterms and track meets, McGarry was instead worrying about whether he would live to experience all that life had to offer him.
After graduating from Southern California's Mater Die High School, McGarry had an exciting future set out in front of him, which surely included running and a career in television. With a full academic ride to Southern Methodist University, he became a part of the cross country and track teams. The cross country season in the fall of 1999 was very successful for McGarry. He ran the third best time of any freshman at the WAC Conference Championship meet as SMU finished second, but his success was short lived. "I was probably in the best shape of my life that fall, but then by indoor and outdoor (track) season, my performance steadily declined and we saw a pretty gradual progression of things that just didn't add up."
In December of his freshman year, McGarry begin to experience bone pain. At first he thought little of it because of the amount of running he was doing and the hectic lifestyle he was leading. The pain would always be connected to a specific event, be it carrying luggage or lifting weights, but the pain became severe enough for McGarry to eventually take notice. "At first it just felt like general soreness. It was very episodic, it's not like it would last an entire week or even two days; it would be one day, and it was usually at night that it would be worst, and it would keep me up."
When McGarry went to see the team doctors about the pain, because of his activity level, they dismissed it as normal. Through out the course of the winter and spring, McGarry visited doctors four times to discuss the pain, getting the same response each time. However, the pain and his suddenly skyrocketing times persisted. At the WAC outdoor track meet, just seven months after his impressive cross country finish, McGarry ran a 5K time of 18 minutes, more than three minutes off his personal best. After his spring semester McGarry went back to California and while his work outs continued throught the off season, so did his ailments. "I continued to train that full distance regimen and I continued to see that I couldn't run like I used to, but now there was the new addition of fever spells to the bone pain."
Over the summer McGarry begin to experience sudden fevers that would range as high as 102 degrees that would subside as quickly as they arose. With the new symptom now accompanying his bone pain, McGarry again visited a doctor, who prescribed only Tylenol. It was not until he began experiencing drastic night sweats that on his third visit to a California doctor, his seventh visit over all, that someone took note. Despite the regular pain and fever spells that preceded them, it was ultimately the night sweats that lead McGarry's family doctor to perform an x-ray. While the test was not definitive, it showed that there was serious growth on McGarry's bones. There was still hope that the growth could have been a bone infection, but an inter-operative biopsy was immediately scheduled for the next day. If the biopsy showed that the growth was cancerous, it could be removed immediately. "Before the biopsy, you don't really know if you have cancer or if it's just an infection," McGarry explains, "but the odds seemed to be weighted in favor of some sort of bone tumor."
As he prepared to undergo surgery, McGarry read and drew inspiration from an autobiographical book by cyclist and cancer-survivor Lance Armstrong, "It's Not About the Bike". Unlike Armstrong who had a week before his biopsy to contemplate the possibility of having cancer, McGarry had little more than 24 hours. Only after surgery and awaking from general anesthesia, did McGarry learn that he had a rare type of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. His case was unusual because generally Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma is found either in the body's lymph system or in the spleen and general stomach area, however his was found in his bones. Having found out that he had cancer on Thursday, his team of doctors wasted no time to begin McGarry's treatment regimen. The following Monday he had his first treatment of chemotherapy. The whirlwind of emotion left McGarry little time to think about the situation in which he now found himself. "The swiftness of the process, when you are diagnosed with something that is this aggressive and potentially fatal, is so fast that there is very little time to think. I went from being in my pediatrician's office and hearing that this x-ray looks really weird, to an operating table in a leading cancer center in the country, to a chemotherapy room within five days."
McGarry's team of doctors, which spanned the state of California, began him on a cycle of drugs, cyclophosphamide, hydroxydaunorubicin, Oncovin, and prednisolone (C.H.O.P. therapy). This specific treatment is either extremely effective or not so at all. He would receive a full day of I.V. treatment once every two weeks for five months. Half way through his chemotherapy treatment, he began a concurrent radiation therapy that prolonged the process by an additional two months. Even with the severe treatment regimen he was undergoing, doctors were not sure that any of it would work. "The good news about C.H.O.P. therapy is that it is incredibly successful, but it's really a race. If you've made it in time, C.H.O.P. is going to do great things," McGarry explains. "It's really all about how long it takes to diagnose things. By the time I had bone pain, that was already almost too late. So when we did catch it, the prognosis was really poor."
For the first half of the 10 months that McGarry underwent the therapy to treat his cancer, neither he, nor his doctors, were sure that he would survive the rigidity of the treatment, but as January progressed, tests began to show that his cancer was receding and that the treatment was working. Having realized that it was again safe to think about a future, McGarry contacted his coach from SMU and found out that with his health problems and shrinking athletic budgets at the school, a spot on the team was not guaranteed. So McGarry began to reestablish contact with a number of coaches that he had been in touch with his senior year of high school. One coach was particularly welcoming and the two began to form a friendship. Harry Groves, the head men's cross country and track coach at Penn State, immediately took an interest in McGarry. "When someone calls up and they have that kind of problem, you aren't going to cut him short."
The 74 year old Groves has been Penn State's head coach for 37 of his 53 years of coaching track and field and is the running world's answer to Joe Paterno. Always ready with a story or a one-liner, Groves began to talk to McGarry every two weeks while he was in the hospital receiving treatment. While Groves made no promises about a spot for him on Penn State's team, running was the furthest thing from McGarry's mind. "Talking to Coach Groves about eventually having a spot on the team was one thing, but his perspective on life and on toughness, and his humor in general, were just as effective of tools as the C.H.O.P. therapy was."
By the time McGarry was accepted to Penn State in March, Groves had already been regularly sending him team programs, pictures of the facilities, and other Nittany Lion information that came to decorate McGarry's room, both at home and at the hospital. As his treatment ended, both McGarry and Groves knew that his road to recovery was nowhere near complete. They agreed that McGarry would redshirt his first year in Happy Valley and use it to get healthy and work himself back into shape. However, to this day, three and a half years later, McGarry does not feel that he has completely recovered to the point he was at before the bone pain set in. While studies focused on chemotherapy are difficult because there are so many different chemo regimens, there is a belief that one of the active ingredients in C.H.O.P., anthracycline, has a permanent cardio vascular effect. "I think everyone expects a lot out of cancer survivors, Lance Armstrong really nailed that home. It is supposed to be this perfectly inspirational story in which everything works out and I am winning Big Ten Championships by now, but it hasn't worked out like that, and that is frustrating."
While McGarry has not been able to return to the athletic accomplishments that he enjoyed his freshman year, it hasn't discouraged him. In fact, McGarry has found motivation and responsibility through his illness. Everything that he has overcome has moved McGarry's career aspirations from television to medicine, and in addition to numerous impressive medial internships he has become the president and founder of Penn State's chapter of the American Cancer Society's Colleges Against Cancer. Through one of the organization's programs, "Rescue Lion", Penn State students supply classmates currently in treatment, and those with primary family members in treatment, with class notes, free cell phone minutes, travel vouchers, meals, and other items. As a cancer survivor, McGarry feels that as he prepares to entire medical school in the fall, he has a responsibility to give back on a number of levels. "I feel a responsibility towards the cause in general, but I do feel a major responsibility to give back to Penn State. For its size and in today's times, I don't know how often you see a place like this really give personal support to someone like myself, all the way back to the treatment bed. Penn State will always be a very special place for me, Coach Groves and the athletic staff especially."
Between a pre-med class load, track practice, and organizational responsibilities, McGarry's life is extremely busy and fast paced, a fact that isn't lost on his teammates or his coach. "There's a lot of respect for him on the team. It's a motivational thing. When people are ready to gripe and give in on something, they have to think about him," Groves said of his senior harrier. "If I can get him to settle down and get some sleep and not have to go-go-go like a crazy man, I think we can get some running out of him by the end of the year."
While the chances of Ryan McGarry's life ever slowing down seem remote at best, what has come through the pain and fear of the past four and a half years is a purpose and a drive to give back to a world that at one point, he wasn't sure he would ever be able to experience again. "I was this 19 year old kid looking out the window at a world that I didn't know if I would ever be a part of again, and that was something that I was really afraid I would miss out on. I think it's really something profound when you are a teenager to early college student and you've just started to get a grasp on what the adult world is all about and what's out there for you and you have it very quickly taken away with not a lot of time to experience it. Since then Penn State has truly been almost like a family experience, which is hard to relate to people when you think about the size of this school."