Jan. 26, 2011
SEATTLE - Jeff Gudaitis is smiling as he sits on the landing pad of the pole-vault area of UW's Dempsey Indoor track facility. He looks like any of the other 50 or so runners who are working out around him.
In fact, the fifth-year senior looks like the fittest 23-year-old in the building. He proudly notes that "right now I am 159. My racing peak is 163. So four pounds, that's not that much."
Yet the two-time NCAA national finalist sprinter -- who went to nationals a third time in 2008 as a sophomore alternate on Washington's Pac-10-champion 4x100-meter relay team -- is not training. He's in a black pullover and sweat pants, with a diamond in his left earlobe. His Huskies teammates are running past wearing shorts, Dry-Fit shirts and the familiar expressions of extreme effort in preparation for this weekend's UW Invitational at Dempsey.
There's one other, huge difference from Gudaitis and the rest of his team - and from all UW athletes, those in the Pac-10 and perhaps even the country, for that matter.
"Everyone says it's such a cool scar," he said. "You want to see it?"
He tugs the collar of his white T-shirt to reveal the swollen, 10-inch line of pink that is the only thing running for him these days, from the right side of his neck across the center to where his thyroid used to be.
In November, a motivated Gudaitis was training for a big return from a foot injury that cost him all of the 2010 track season. He and distance runner Connor Tully-Doyle, a fellow senior, talked of how fast they were going to be in the distance medley relay this indoor season, NCAA championship and All-American fast.
Then suddenly, his training became a grind from fatigue.
"At first I thought I was tired and out of shape. And I was like, `Oh, man. This sucks, to be out of shape for my senior season,'" he said.
Or maybe, he thought, he had strep throat. UW team doctor Kim Harmon noticed a lump on the right side of his neck and pursued more tests, just in case. A biopsy came on Dec. 2. Five days later, Dr. Neal Futran, an otolaryngologist at UW Medical Center, called Gudaitis with the result.
"I have to tell you, it's cancer," Futran said.
Just like that, a running career, a college life that includes a degree he's about to earn in economics - shattered into unrecognizable pieces.
"You hear that word, it hits you hard," Gudaitis said, sitting on that landing mat Tuesday night during the first practice he'd visited since the stunning diagnosis. "I called my mom. I send a note only to my closest friends. After I found out, I didn't want a lot of sympathy exactly. I just didn't want everyone feeling bad for me."
Three days before Christmas, doctors removed his thyroid and the couple hundred lymph nodes. UW thrower Conner Larned, Gudaitis' roommate in a Seattle apartment, was waiting with a little Christmas tree for him when he got wheeled back to his hospital room following surgery. Sprints Coach Raul Sheen and sophomore sprinter Colton Dunn, who is scheduled to take Gudaitis' 400-meter place in the distance medley relay this weekend, arrived within three hours.
Falesha Ankton, a Huskies two-time All-American hurdler and sprinter who is in her first season as a UW volunteer assistant coach for sprinters, sent a video compilation of well wishes from the team.
Yet here's the thing: Gudaitis portrays such strength, is so upbeat and so poised in these initial weeks of his changed life, he convinced me not to feel sorry for him as we sat chatting for more than a half hour.
"It's just a good experience for my life," he says. "I can grow more from this."
I gawked at the scar and considered all that it represents: The week of radiation hell he will enter in a few weeks; the isolation inside a sealed hospital room; the unknown impact the treatment will have on him.
He joked about it.
"Everyone says you've got to have a great story for that. You were in a lion attack. You were fighting off a shark," he said of the scar. "I've heard so many great ones."
Gudaitis has papillary thyroid cancer, "which is not as bad as it sounds," he says.
"Cancer is never something you want to hear, but if you have to have cancer you want papillary cancer, because it has a more curable rate. And since I am young and I am in shape - mostly - it's a lot better than it could have been.
"Right now, I can basically do whatever my fatigue levels let me. I can go out for a run, which I tried to do on Thursday. And it was not a pretty sight. I was struggling after a couple blocks. Couple minutes in, I was ready to stop. It's just, I haven't worked out in more than a month."
The member of the fifth-fastest distance medley relay team in UW history in 2009, a former Washington state high school champion in the 400 and 200 meters for Tacoma Baptist, looks fine. He sounds fine.
"My doctor is really impressed with my energy levels and how I look right now," he said. "My doctor tells me, `If I didn't know you any better right now, I wouldn't know you had surgery.'"
But Gudaitis knows this is the calm before a storm of radiation therapy wracks his body and gives him the toughest workout he's ever had. On Feb. 20, he will check into the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for an intense week that doctors hope rids his body of the cancer that inexplicably invaded it this winter.
"They give me a radioactive iodide pill. So I take that and I'm in the hospital for a couple days. Can't see anybody. I'm in a special room with like plastic all over. I become radioactive for 48 hours or whatever," he said, chuckling.
"I pee green and I secrete radiation, so I am not allowed to see anybody."
He will then get a whole body scan, to see if any more cancerous cells are present.
Thankfully, odds are in his favor they won't be. A 2008 study of radioactive iodide therapy on more than 1,000 papillary thyroid cancer patients at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan found that within a decade after removal of the thyroid and then the radioactive treatments, 81 percent survived and most cases of recurring cancer in the neck area were effectively controlled, without a relapse.
Not that Gudaitis is in love with odds right now.
"It's not common in males, or in younger people. It's more common in middle-aged women. So the doctor was like, `Yeah, normally guys your age don't get it,'" Gudaitis said of papillary thyroid cancer, chuckling at his bad luck.
"And my grandma had lung cancer - and she never smoked a day in her whole life."
As he talks, I can't get past the fact he must be asking himself, "Why me?"
He says he's zoomed past that point, as if it was just another block on just another training run.
"You know, I just tried to be positive through all this and just see the bright side of this," he said. "I'm so blessed that they found it early, in that it wasn't as bad as it could be."
He did admit to a day or two of self-pity, during the darkest of days last month.
"I was kind of asking, `Why me?' Then I figured there is nothing I can do about it. I have cancer, and I can't change it by questioning, Why me, or having a bad attitude, sulking around and being pouty the whole time," he said. "I just tried to change my whole mentality and turn it around. Just try to be a positive influence on everyone around me.
"It's just happened. There's nothing I can do about it."
Oh, but there is. Life hasn't stopped for Gudaitis. It's just taken an unexpected detour.
He is taking time off from classes - he is a couple of completed core courses away from his economics degree - to be home in Tacoma. He is eating his mother Maria's smoothies, milkshakes and "da bomb" honey-mustard chicken.
"She's trying to fatten me up," he says, laughing.
He is taking medication to replicate the removed thyroid's work, and will every day for the rest of his life. He is enduring nagging numbness in his neck and weakness in his voice that doctors say is to be expected right now. He is excited to resume his photography hobby that he practiced at UW meets by taking pictures of teammates racing after he finished his competition.
And he will be back at Dempsey Friday night to cheer on Dunn, Ryan Soberanis, Ryan Styrk and James Cameron as they run the distance medley relay heat against teams from UCLA, Oregon, Long Beach State, Simon Fraser, Sacramento State, among others.
"Oh, I came to the first meet, all pumped and ready for everybody to run," he said. "As many of them I can be at, I will be at."
He could petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility on a medical hardship waiver. But that's if he emerges well from the unpredictable results and effects of the upcoming radiation therapy.
He sounds satisfied, content even, that his own competitive career in track is over.
"I want to see how the radiation goes. And you know, I've been in track so long," he said, displaying impressive perspective for a college athlete who has just had his spikes taken away by cancer. "If I could get a sixth year, I'd love to. But if that's not what's meant for me, that's fine with me, too.
"I'm content with what I've run in college. That I've gotten to go to nationals three years. That I've gone to run in Pac-10 championships. That I've gone to run all over the country. My experience at the University of Washington has been so great. My coaches have been so great. My teammates have been so great.
"It's been awesome."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.