By Jackie Baker
What began as an annoying back injury for Park City resident Gary Hecox turned out to be a critical clue to saving his life. In January 2014, Gary was working at a ski race at PCMR. He was skiing while carrying timing equipment and hit a rut. At the time, Gary thought he sprained his back due to the impact and weight of the timing equipment. He waited 3 weeks before getting x-rays that proved that he had in fact broken his back.
“I was treated with an external back brace, no surgery,” recalls Gary, “Coincidentally, I also had my annual physical in January. My blood tests came back abnormal. That began a whole series of doctor referrals and other tests that proved to be inconclusive. Finally in April, due to my back injury that still didn’t seem to be healing and the abnormal blood tests combined, I was given a diagnosis.”
Gary was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that begins in bone marrow. When he was diagnosed, 70% of his marrow was cancer cells, which was a reason his back broke so easily. His treatment at Huntsman Cancer Institute included multiple rounds of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. For two months, he was unable to eat solid food. He lost 60lbs.
“2014 was a long year. And, I didn’t get to ride my bike at all,” says Gary, who has been an avid cyclist since 2000 when he and his son began riding mountain bikes. Several years later, he picked up a road bike, and that became his main passion. “I’ve ridden the Ultimate Challenge at the Tour of Utah. I usually ride four centuries every year. My first ride back, after everything last year, was like I’d met up with an old friend. I felt so good getting back on my bike even though the first ride was only five miles.”
“It was important for me to get back on the bike because when I am on my bike, other life challenges and pressures go away.” That’s the encouragement that Gary likes to offer others who are affected by cancer, “As you go through cancer treatment and recovery, remember the joy that cycling brought you before diagnosis. Getting back on the bike will bring back those feelings.”
In order to regain the strength and endurance to get back in the saddle, Gary spends hours at the Linda B. and Robert B. Wiggins Wellness and Integrated Health Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute. “Without the Wellness Center, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now—I definitely wouldn’t be back on my bike. I had to regain the muscle I lost while I was so sick during chemo and the stem cell transplant. I ended up with numb feet as part of the chemo, so we worked on balance and agility. We strengthened the muscles where I broke my back. It’s accelerated my recovery, and it’s a place I can go and not relive the past. I can move forward, sweat, and work out.”
While utilizing the Wellness Center, Gary learned about the Huntsman 140, a fundraising bike ride on June 20 for cancer research at Huntsman Cancer Institute. “I signed up for the 50-mile distance. Because of the work we’ve done at the Wellness Center, my legs are strong and my endurance is getting better.”
Now Gary is able to ride about 15-25 miles at a time, depending on the amount of climbing. “I have been riding my ‘flat route’ around Snyderville Basin. It’s a nice 15-mile loop. I recently did the Sun Peak climb, and only had to stop and catch my breath once. I have to be really careful about weather and exertion, because my immune system is still weak and pneumonia is a serious concern.”
Gary plans to gradually increase his mileage as the Huntsman 140 approaches, but he keeps his expectations realistic. “After you’ve put in some big rides on the bike, you learn what’s good for you, and what’s best left for someone else. I think I can ride those 50 miles slowly and enjoy myself. Riding is a whole lot better than not riding.”
To learn more about the Huntsman 140, visit www.huntsman140.com
To learn more about the Linda B. and Robert B. Wiggins Wellness and Integrated Health Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute, visit www.huntsmancancer.org