Kurt Gibson knows life is an amazing race. During his last semester of college, the 22-year-old ultimate Frisbee player began to notice that he was more fatigued than usual and had blood in his stool. “I was in peak physical shape, so I just figured this was the result of my active lifestyle,” says Kurt, who decided to ignore what would turn out to be colorectal cancer symptoms.
When the fatigue and blood didn’t go away, Kurt saw a doctor on campus. The doctor said there was nothing to worry about and to come back if the symptoms continued.
A colorectal cancer diagnosis
A few months later, Kurt graduated and moved to Dallas for a new job. His symptoms persisted, so he found a new doctor and underwent a flexible sigmoidoscopy. It didn’t show anything, so the doctor recommended a colonoscopy. It revealed a polyp that was too large to be removed. A biopsy was taken, two days later Kurt got a call from his doctor. The polyp had cancer cells. He had stage III colorectal cancer.
“What is going on? Is this real?” he recalls thinking. Kurt tried to call his mom … no answer. He tried to call his dad … no answer. He called his girlfriend at the time … no answer.
“All I could think was ’Is this really happening, and what do I do now?’” he says.
“What do I do next?”
Kurt had total colectomy surgery where 90% of his colon was removed. Afterwards, he spent six weeks recovering before starting chemotherapy. He tried to go back to his life and be “a normal 22 year old,” but after the first few treatments, he felt lethargic and sick.
He took a leave of absence from his job while he recovered. Eventually, Kurt was able to return to his favorite place -- the ultimate Frisbee field, where he led his club team to three USA Ultimate Club championships. He won two gold medals at the World Championships as part of the USA Men’s National Team and two semi-pro championships in the American Ultimate Disc League.
Cancer lessons help Kurt through “The Amazing Race”
In 2015, his friend and Ultimate Frisbee teammate called him and asked if he wanted to be on “The Amazing Race.” After initially saying no, Kurt agreed to participate in the reality competition show. The pair ultimately were the sixth team eliminated from the competition.
Looking back, Kurt says that going through surgery, chemotherapy and cancer treatment side effects prepared him for the ups and downs he experienced on the show, as he competed in foreign countries on little sleep and with the pressure of being eliminated.
“Those were the times that helped me get through not only the tough situations I confronted in the race, but also in life,” he says.
Life as a young adult cancer survivor
Today, Kurt is focused on life after cancer and “The Amazing Race.” He returns to MD Anderson each year for colonoscopies. But like many young adult cancer survivors, he’s still trying to find his way.
“Being young with cancer can be daunting, intimidating and can put you in a weird spot in a social environment. A lot of young people don’t know how to interact with people with cancer,” Kurt says.
Gratitude leads to support for others
But, in many ways, he looks back on his cancer journey and feels grateful for what it has brought him. “I can not only manage future challenging times better; I can also support others going through tough times,” says Kurt, who hopes he can be a shining light for other cancer survivors. He has volunteered at MD Anderson in the Ambulatory Treatment Center and the MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital.
“Volunteering was the least I could do after my life had been turned around after my experience with cancer,” Kurt says. “Spending time with other cancer patients was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”
He also shares his story with others at speaking engagements around the world. Kurt will be sharing his story at the Cancer 180 Young Adult Survivorship Conference on Saturday, June 10.
“As a young adult patient, you can always be a role model for others facing similar challenges to you,” he says. “The times when you show them how to get through is when you can change their lives for the better.”
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