Wednesday December 23, 2015
Right here, in South Burlington, lives a young Olympic hopeful: thirteen-year-old Gavin Shamis, a student at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School. But he is more than an exceptional athlete. Gavin is a trail blazing, forward thinking example to us all. Named to the USA Luge Junior National Team in May 2014, he is currently training for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. And as if that’s not enough for any seventh grader, Gavin is also a childhood cancer survivor who, along with Sochi Olympian Bryan Fletcher, co-founded a national charity called ccThrive.
Much of Gavin’s journey began when he was eight-years-old and diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), the most common childhood cancer, which causes the bone marrow to produce too many immature lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). But, a self-described go-getter, Gavin refused to let a glass-half-empty attitude stop him.
Two weeks ago, as I sat across from him, at Healthy Living, he said, “I try hard in every aspect of my life. I feel like I always have, but possibly more so now.” Though he acknowledged, “I felt depressed at times,” having cancer “made me feel like I had more urgency to do my best, to never question what deep down I know I can do, and to break the boundaries of what I was expected to do.” For Gavin, breaking boundaries means, “I am dedicated and determined at everything I do.”
The boundaries he has certainly broken, with astounding perseverance. A swimmer whose dream to compete on the regional level was changed by the side effects of chemotherapy in 2011, his parents took him to the USA Luge Slider Search. “It was something cool to try,” he said. “When I got on the sled, it felt like it was meant to be.” His smiling eyes told the emotional truth – Gavin had found his niche. Because the chemotherapy weakened his legs, he struggled during the physical testing required to qualify for the luge team. “I didn’t feel good about it,” Gavin declared. But he quickly grasped the technique of the sport and was named to the USA Luge Junior National Team.
How does he do it, attend school, do homework, and, as Gavin described it, “Slide?” A strict schedule: wake at six, breakfast at seven, two hours of “sliding,” lunch, a video viewing of that morning’s “slide” session, two hours of homework, dinner, more homework, then to bed by eleven. Thanks to the flexibility of the South Burlington school system, he is able to maintain his studies while training eight weeks a year at the US Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.
When I asked him how he responds to others’ instinctive need to help by offering boilerplate advice like, “Don’t push yourself too hard, you’ve had cancer,” he said, “No one has dared to stop me.” That includes his older sister, Zoe, who maintains her brother’s heartening spirit. In an email exchange from her dorm at Bowdoin College in Maine, she said, “Seeing what he was able to do helped me reach many of my goals and get [me] where I am now. Gavin inspired me with his strength through the ups and downs of his treatment, as well as how he was able to bounce back and achieve so much.”
The “downs of his treatment” are unforgettable for Gavin: low white blood cell counts, a crucial component of the immune system, and liver failure. Even now, more than two years after completing treatment, the side effects linger. The challenges are “countless,” he added. “I don’t think I could list them all.” Gavin’s challenges are shared ones: An estimated 15,780 children are diagnosed with cancer in the US each year. Though the prognosis for children with any type of cancer is better than for adults, ninety-eight percent of survivors will experience significant health-related issues due to chemotherapy.
Despite the brutal side effects Gavin endured, he held fast to his curiosity. A few weeks into his treatment at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, when he was eight, Gavin says he “wanted to learn the science of what was going on with me.” Gavin was certainly mature beyond his years – undoubtedly, cancer impelled him to be aware of his own mortality. But he admitted, “I miss being carefree. No kid should have to think about this stuff.” He realized, when going through treatment, “If I got a fever, I could be dead within a week.”
Yet he kept “sliding.” However, athletic prowess is only half of Gavin’s survival story. Throughout his treatment, he pined for role models who had survived cancer as children then continued through life fulfilling great accomplishments. But all he found were famous adult survivors. Gavin wanted to spread his hopeful message to other children undergoing treatment. “There is no reason to give up. We just have to try harder and smarter.”
Two months after making the luge team, Gavin met Bryan Fletcher, the US Nordic Combined National Champion, who was diagnosed with ALL at three-years-old. He is now twenty-nine. Gavin’s determination inspired Bryan and, together, they started ccThrive. Through a three-pronged approach – awareness, guidance, and access – ccThrive aims to help childhood cancer survivors realize their full potential, regardless of their challenges. Two other “Thrivers” have since joined the collective cause to do as Gavin has set as his long-term goal: “To help as many kids as possible.” After all, as he so poignantly says on the ccThrive website, “It’s not about what they can’t do but what they can [do].”
When I asked Gavin how he feels when training on the luge team, he said, “Even though I’m traveling at fifty-five miles an hour, it’s extremely calm. I see everything flying over me, but the only thing I can feel is my sled, the pressure of the curve, and the ice underneath me.”
As Gavin states on the ccThrive website, “I am redefining what it means to survive childhood cancer.” But, as is his tendency, Gavin is doing more than just that, and inspiring all of us along the way.
To learn more about ccThrive and how you can help childhood cancer survivors realize their full potential, go to ccthrive.org.
SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor