By Timothy Deenihan
“I haven’t told them yet,” Ryan Litwin ’20 admits to me. I pause.
“You haven’t told them,” I say, confirming I’ve just heard what sounds like a Really Bad Idea.
Ryan laughs a little, quietly. Most of our conversation is quiet. He seems to be one of those eternally soft-spoken, mild-mannered, happily affable young men whose company is as comfortable as an old pair of jeans.
“Yeah. No,” he says, and laughs again. It’s clear both words are meant as confirmation: positive or negative, good or bad, come what may, this is how it is. Some people are just so happy to be alive, they don’t bother with permission. That’s Ryan.
* * *
Ryan’s not a fan of anniversaries. This makes absolute sense the more you get to know him. Ryan’s the kind of kid who doesn’t like to see dates on a calendar and have them anchored down with Meaning. He’s the kind of kid who wakes to face each new day as exactly that.
April 22 stands out on Ryan’s calendar, however, whether he marks it or not. That’s Earth Day. And it was on Earth Day, 2015, that Ryan was getting his physical to clear him for running track as a high school junior when the doctor felt something that wasn’t quite right. The next day, Ryan was on an operating table. Within a day or two, between scans and tests and surgery, the picture was pretty clear. Testicular cancer had spread to his abdomen and lungs, creating a tumor so large it was shutting down his kidney. By week’s end, he had started the first of four rounds of week-long chemotherapy sessions, each of which required at least two weeks of recovery to allow his immune system to rebuild itself.
Running would have to wait. School had to wait. Friends had to wait. Chemo had so mightily pummeled his immune system, even a well-meaning friend with a sniffle could be fatal.
By the time the chemo was done, the tumors had shrunk, but they were not gone. Ryan had what are known as mixed germ cell tumors—a rare type of cancer involving at least two types of germ cell tumors that makes the cancer itself that much more complex to fight. He was referred to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where doctors discovered he also had a blood clot in his leg that had to be resolved before it reached his lungs, potentially killing him with a pulmonary embolism.
Through all this, Ryan, who had once considered studying biomedical engineering, was finding himself interested in a different aspect of health care. Still fascinated by the science, he found himself increasingly drawn to the element of care—that interaction between medical professional and patient, from the indefatigable love and support of his nurses to the straight-talking candor of his urological surgeon at MSK, Joel Sheinfeld, M.D. Surgery was necessary, the doctor explained, and they discussed the procedures and percentages in depth.
Ryan admits this was the first time he genuinely began to feel nervous. “In track, my race was mainly the mile,” he explains. “Four laps around the track. So because my treatment was four rounds of treatment, I equated the whole thing to one very long mile race. This head game and thinking helped me to stay motivated and positive throughout the whole treatment. But then the doctors added another lap, this surgery. It wasn’t a mile race anymore, and my method of keeping myself sane and keeping my thoughts straight was gone.”
There was another complicating factor in this head game. Months earlier, just two weeks after his own diagnosis, Ryan’s cousin Laurie was re-diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Ryan and Laurie spoke on the phone often, comparing experiences, offering encouragement, both fighting and each reminding the other that neither was fighting alone. But by the time of Ryan’s surgery, a significant difference had emerged between them. As Ryan was showing signs of improvement; Laurie was getting worse. She ended up losing her battle the summer before Ryan started his freshman year at Sacred Heart.
The surgery took eight hours, but in the end, when asked how it had gone, Sheinfeld offered Ryan’s parents a rare, unequivocal answer. “We got everything,” he said. Around the end of September, Ryan was rejoining his senior year of high school. Dots on his lungs remained—but tested benign—so quarterly check-ups and semi-annual CT scans became part of his routine.
And he managed to get some running in. The doctors, knowing his affinity for the sport, would ask about his running as a roundabout way of checking on his lung capacity. When he admitted he wasn’t running as much as he would like, they were concerned until he clarified that with all his school obligations he’d only managed to knock off two half-marathons and a road race since the last check-up.
Now a nursing major in his junior year at SHU, balancing his studies and clinicals with his duties as a resident assistant, Ryan is still having a tough time getting in the miles like he wants. Or, indeed, like he needs.
“Have you told them about what you’re doing this summer?” I ask, referring, of course, to the reason we scheduled this interview in the first place.
“No,” he admits, and I can hear him grinning. “I haven’t told them yet.”
“You haven’t told them…”
That soft laugh. “Yeah. No.”
So allow me.
This summer, from June 16 to August 3, Ryan Litwin is running from San Francisco to Boston. He’s part of a team of about 30 people who will cover roughly 4,500 miles in relay fashion, raising funds and visibility for the Ulman Foundation, a charity dedicated to “creating a community of support for young adults, and their loved ones, impacted by cancer.” Each runner is either a cancer survivor, or someone otherwise affected by it.
As a cancer patient nearly too old for Connecticut Children’s Hospital, then oddly young among the patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Ryan realized that cancer has the tendency to go after either the very young or those who’d reached at least middle-age. To be a late teen or even a 20-something, dealing with cancer can be surprisingly alienating at exactly the worst time, often (as Ryan hastens to point out) as much for the patient’s loved ones as for the patient. The Ulman Foundation seeks to fill that void in care.
For seven weeks, Ryan and his crew will run four days out of every five, spelling each other off, taking turns running and resting, pounding the pavement as a relay team to get the miles done. Every fifth day, they will take a break from the road to visit hospitals and families supported by the foundation. “It’s a chance for us to say, ‘We’re here for you,’” he explains. “Inspire them to hang in and fight. That’s our motto: ‘No one fights alone.’”
And so, having beaten testicular cancer before even graduating high school, Ryan is lacing up his shoes to prepare for the run of a lifetime. He hasn’t told his doctors about his plan yet. He knows he probably should but, speaking to him, I don’t believe he’s hiding it from them. His voice is giddy with anticipation. The run will be here before he knows it, and he’s excited for every aspect of it in the same way a child is excited not just for Christmas, but for the whole Christmas season. I think telling the doctors makes the thing a little more real, a little closer, and he really just wants to savor that anticipation as long as he can.
And that, I’ve come to believe, is Ryan through and through. He learned very young and very thoroughly that life is uncertain, and any part of it worth savoring is worth savoring with all you’ve got.
To support Ryan’s run, go to https://ulman.z2systems.com/ryan-litwin. There you will find his personal story as well as information about the run and the Ulman Foundation’s mission. You can also follow Ryan’s preparations and experience on Instagram at @rlitwin.
Ryan will also be raising awareness about National Young Adult Cancer Awareness Week April 1-5 in the 63’s hallway of the main academic building on campus. Stop by and show your support.