Kyle Garlett has survived cancer four times. Doctors have implanted a new hip and shoulder in his body — and a donor’s transplanted heart now beats in his chest.
Yet Garlett dismisses the idea that he is unusually persevering.
|Kyle Garlett has the Ironman in his sights. (Photo by Darrin S. Joy)|
“At City of Hope, I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people who’ve had incredible challenges,” said Garlett, 38. “When you’re thrown into the deep end, you have two choices: Sink or swim.”
Garlett chose to swim. And bike. And run.
This inveterate survivor and City of Hope patient is gearing up for one of the most grueling triathlons — the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 10, three years to the day after he received his heart transplant, and 20 years since he first was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The Marina Del Rey, Calif., resident will share the starting line with 1,800 competitors braced to swim 2.4 miles in the ocean, bike 112 miles, and then run 26.2 miles.
The cancer experience has prepared Garlett well for the long hours of training. He simply reminds himself, “It isn’t chemotherapy.”
Garlett first was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a high school senior on Sept. 25, 1989, in Wichita, Kan. He spent his afternoons after school much differently from classmates: he underwent radiation treatments. They worked — at least until 1991, just after finishing his freshman year at the University of Missouri. Chemotherapy sent him into a second remission.
In 1993, Garlett transferred to California’s Azusa Pacific University to study broadcasting. The following year, the disease returned, and he began treatment at City of Hope, where he underwent an autologous stem cell transplant.
But he was not done. In 1997, at age 25, he learned crushing news. He had developed another cancer: acute lymphocytic leukemia.
The recurring diagnoses and therapies — which were lifesaving, but also toxic — took their toll. He began thinking of himself as “cancer guy.”
Outwardly upbeat, he hid his fears from friends, yet thought, “Why am I mapping out a career I’ll never get to live?”
A psychologist encouraged him to start building a life after cancer. He also drew from the strength and grace of fellow patients, with whom he said he bonded like “soldiers in combat. We all have such strength inside of us.”
For the next several years, Garlett underwent chemotherapy mostly as an outpatient, and eventually went into remission. In 2000, his deteriorating right hip and left shoulder were replaced at City of Hope, and in 2001, when his heart condition worsened, he was referred to the University of California, Los Angeles, for transplant.
Awaiting a donor, he continued making the most of his life. He turned to sports writing and became a motivational speaker. In the audience during one such speech was Garlett’s future wife, Carrie (a city planner who trains with him for her own triathlon).
They were married in 2005 at City of Hope. For this event, documented by the television show “Extreme Makeover: Wedding Edition,” the grounds were transformed into “Christmas in New York,” replete with Rockefeller Center skating rink, snow machine and giant Christmas tree. Liza Minnelli even serenaded them with “New York, New York.”
After years of waiting for a donor, Garlett underwent a heart transplant in 2006. “You go for such a long time without being able to feel your heartbeat because it’s so weak,” he said. “All of a sudden, I had this strong, thumping heart in my chest.”
As his health improved, he began exercising to build his endurance. He also continued writing, from sports books and blogs to an upcoming memoir.
“Having cancer was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to me,” Garlett said. “If I hadn’t gone through this, I wouldn’t be the person I am.
“I wouldn’t want to do this again,” he assured, “but I’m so grateful for the life I have.”
His family and friends and sense of humor buoy his life. So does his philosophy: “Live each day like it’s your first.”
“You just kind of focus on things that make life great,” he advised, recalling a recent bike ride along Pacific Coast Highway.
“Looking out over at the ocean and mountains meeting,” he said quietly, “all the fight getting to this point was worth it.”