How cancer fueled a racing career
September 21, 2016 | by Stephanie Smith
Jonathan Sugianto was younger than most, only 3 years old, when he first caught a glimpse of his future. It happened in front of a TV screen. And as he describes it today, his little toddler eyes brightened and a dream began germinating when the channel landed on — a NASCAR race.
“Since then I’ve been hooked,” says Sugianto. “I love racing. I love the excitement. I love the adrenaline.”
Even at that young age, Sugianto says, he was sure he wanted to be part of what he saw on screen. He could not have known it then, but being diagnosed with cancer five years later would become a big part of making that dream real.
“I’m not ready to say it’s a positive thing that’s happened in my life, but it has taught me a lot of lessons,” says Sugianto, now 20.
He began learning those lessons at age 8. He was in Indonesia in 2003, on a holiday with family, when he started feeling feverish and weak. At first, his family thought he had a bad cold or flu, but a local doctor confirmed it was much more than that.
“When we went to the doctor there they told my parents in a separate room — this is very, very serious,” says Sugianto. “You have to fly back home immediately.”
A week later, he lay in a hospital bed at City of Hope weighed down by fear, and what he describes as a tangle of tubes coming out of his body. What the Sugianto family first thought was a cold actually was much graver. He was diagnosed with a blood cancer called acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The family spent several weeks gripped by fear and uncertainty. Only later, after many tears were shed, did determination win out. Sugianto says his mother told him: “This is not something that’s going to go away easily. You’re going to have to fight if you want to get better, so just keep pushing.”
Fighting and pushing helped him through three-and-a-half years of treatment, then remission and later — when he was 13 — jumpstarted his racing career. Not that he was raring to get on the track right after remission. He had been living a cautious life for two years post-cancer — too cautious — and only after that realized he wanted something more. With the dream of racing professionally still occupying a corner of his mind, he decided to really go for it.
“I could totally understand a (former) cancer patient being done with risk and everything,” says Sugianto. “But that’s not who I am. That’s not what I want my life to be like.”
Of course, he understood that sometimes, while on the track, he could potentially confront death again. “I had to think, ‘Am I willing to put my parents through all this again? Can I see myself in the hospital after a crash or something?’” says Sugianto. “But that fearlessness kicked in after my first win and I was like, ‘You know what? You got one life to live.
I’m not going to think about all the bad things that could happen. I’m going to think of what good things could happen.”
Many good things have happened since that first win. Sugianto is still cancer-free and now competes as a formula racecar driver. And he is just steps from becoming a full-fledged professional.
Cancer, he says, almost always enters his mind while he is racing.
“If I’m going 3-wide on the racetrack,” says Sugianto, describing the dangerous position of being in the third car turning a corner, “I’m willing to risk it all.
“You’ve got to be willing to risk a lot to gain a lot. Cancer taught me that.”
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