This week row2k features Dartmouth senior lightweight rower Ryan Archer. Archer was diagnosed with cancer in high school and has since made a full recovery to help the Big Green.
row2k - How did you get your start in rowing and why did you decide to row at Dartmouth?
Ryan Archer - I started rowing in the spring when I was in ninth grade. I had previously tried baseball, lacrosse, and tennis, none of which appealed to me, so I decided to try something new. Rowing appealed to me quickly because it rewards fitness and determination. By the time I began to think about colleges, athletics were important to me, and I knew that I wanted to continue competing athletically. I decided that the medium for this would be lightweight rowing.
Looking for a high-end academic institution with a highly competitive lightweight rowing team narrowed my search significantly, and I found Dartmouth. The size and location of the college, the liberal-arts education, and the proximity of the boathouse to campus all appealed to me. When it came time to write applications, I had already made my decision.
row2k - You battled cancer in high school, do you mind sharing that story?
Ryan Archer - On June 21, 2007, I brought it to my parents' attention that my left testicle was enlarged and sore. It had been a few days since I noticed the mass, and I had begun to realize that this was not something that would just go away with time. That evening, my parents had a urologist (a friend of theirs) examine me, and they rushed me to the hospital to get an ultrasound. I had a stage-III non-seminoma embryonal carcinoma of the testis – i.e. testicular cancer. At six o'clock the next morning, I was on the operating table to have the tumor removed. I started a chemotherapy regimen five days later while still recovering from surgery.
Every Wednesday for the next nine weeks I went to the hospital for a complete blood count (CBC) and chemotherapy. Many of these visits lasted for only a couple of hours, but on the first week of each three-week cycle, I was in the hospital for several days. The chemotherapy regimen that my oncologist administered was a version of the standard recipe for patients with testicular cancer. He safely tailored the chemotherapy regimen to my circumstances; for instance because of my commitment to athletics, he lowered the dosage of one of the drugs, the side effects of which included possible pulmonary fibrosis. Other side effects of chemotherapy include nausea and a loss of appetite. I could not eat very much during my inpatient visits, and the doctors gave me anti-nausea medications.
Chemotherapeutic agents work like poisons that are directed at tumor cells. However, they also inevitably kill some cells that you do not want to kill. Among these good cells are neutrophils and platelets. Neutrophils, i.e. white blood cells, make up an important part of the immune system; platelets are the cells, which help to clot blood in the case of bruises or cuts. Neutropenia (having low neutrophil counts) is a side effect of chemotherapy, which meant that my summer was far from normal even when I was not in the hospital.
I was limited in what I could do when I was home. Neutropenia meant that I could not go to movie theaters or other very public places because I could not risk catching any illness, the recovery from which might have required a delay in my treatment. With a damaged immune system, I was much more vulnerable. With a low platelet count I was not allowed to put myself at risk of getting scrapes or bruises. This meant that I would not be playing squash for the rest of the summer. I started running when I was home in order to maintain my fitness. Soon I was running farther and more often. To have a goal that was more than just recovery, I decided to run the Philadelphia Marathon in November.
My hair fell out in July, about three weeks after having started chemotherapy. I was washing my hair, and I looked at my hands, and they were covered in hair. My mom helped me shave my head later, although most of the hair was already gone.
I was scheduled to stay in the hospital on my seventeenth birthday, which I had been hoping to celebrate at home. I wanted to reschedule my visit to the hospital, but my parents said I had my priorities out of order. However, when I arrived at the hospital, my blood counts were too low for treatment, as they were still on the rebound. My visit was postponed by several days, and I had my birthday at home.
In August, my oncologist reevaluated my progress by examining my CBC and different imaging results. My tumor markers were low, which was good, but I had some abnormally large lymph nodes in my abdomen. Because testicular germ-cell tumors can metastasize to lymph nodes, I would need a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection (RPLND) in September to remove these lymph nodes, in order to check that they did not contain cancerous cells.
I was nervous about the first day of school, wondering how people would react to my condition. For better or worse, many of my classmates were already aware of my diagnosis and treatment, even among the people whom I had not seen during the summer. I would have to miss school for several weeks because of the planned surgery, but my teachers gave me flexibility on assignments and deadlines in order to work around my schedule. I would not be able to row in the fall because of my surgery, but I kept running while I could.
I ran the Philadelphia Distance run on September 16, 2007. At this point I knew that I would not be fit enough after surgery to run the marathon that November, but running a half-marathon was my consolation prize. I was at the hospital for the RPLND two days later.
The recovery from this abdominal surgery was a week in the hospital, spent mostly lying in bed, and then many weeks of active recovery at home before life would be back to normal. I learned how much people use their abdominal muscles in every day life, as I struggled to sit upright and could barely walk for several days after surgery. Even walking across my hospital room was initially a strenuous task, but I pushed myself to rebuild my strength quickly.
After my surgery, my doctors examined the lymph nodes that were removed, checking for cancerous cells. They could not say with absolute certainty that these lymph nodes did not contain malignant tissue, and for safe measure, this meant two more three-week cycles of chemotherapy. I wanted to get back to school as quickly as possible and to keep up with my work, but my treatment was not over yet.
While I was recovering from surgery, the end of my treatment was finally within sight. The chemotherapy was more and more exhausting, but my abdominal muscles were healing. After several weeks I was cleared to start exercising again. I began running slowly at first but I knew that a full recovery would require considerable work and would take months. I was not able to run the Philadelphia Marathon that year, but I ran the Schuylkill Navy turkey trot for the first time that year, and have run it every year since. Soon I was back on the squash court and back on the erg.
By the end of the winter, I had made a full recovery from surgery, and was in remission from cancer. My blood counts would not be entirely back to normal for many months, but I was regaining my strength and was able to renew my involvement in everything that I had had to set aside during treatment. My family, friends, and teachers had been incredibly supportive throughout my treatment and recovery, and – great thanks to all of them – I was able to manage my recovery while keeping up with my academic responsibilities. I was able to return to rowing in the spring, and having missed the fall season, I began training again with new enthusiasm.
I have been free of cancer since then and am currently as fit as I have ever been. I have to visit the hospital to monitor my health with diminishing frequency, now only once a year, and at five years of remission, it is unlikely that this cancer will reappear. I am still rowing, running, and playing squash, and I am grateful that I have recovered as well as I have. I would never like to get sick, but I am grateful for the perspective I have from having battled this illness.
row2k - How did that experience impact your life and rowing?
Ryan Archer - Battling cancer taught me an invaluable lesson: life can change dramatically without warning. I had had plans, but life did not stop for me when I was diagnosed with cancer. If a person catches a crab in the middle of a race, another boat will not wait for that person to get the oar out of the water. I adapted, changed my plans, and kept going. Sometimes events happen, over which people have little or no control, and I learned that when a situation like this arises, looking for some cause to blame or feeling sorry for oneself will not make the problem go away. Instead it is better to determine how to approach the challenge and to respond.
For having battled cancer, I also have a much greater appreciation for my good health, and I know that I have the support of my family and friends.
row2k - What do you like most about the sport of rowing?
Ryan Archer - What I like most about rowing is racing lightweight eights. That may seem a general or obvious statement, but I don't believe that it is. I love going out in a boat with seven other rowers and a coxswain and giving every effort to travel the course of two thousand meters as quickly as possible. Winning is secondary to racing. Winning is less meaningful if the victorious crew has energy remaining that they did not give in the race. Whether or not a there are other boats, a crew should always race itself.
Lightweight rowing amplifies the appeal of racing for me, because setting a weight-limit on crews and individuals guarantees that any two crews will be nearly the same size on race-day, thereby diminishing any advantage that a crew can hope to gain as a result of size. Lightweight rowing takes two individuals or crews, stipulates that they will be nearly the same size, and then asks the question, which of the two is faster?
Boat-speed is determined by many different factors. These factors include weather and water conditions, differences in equipment, rowing technique and steering, physical fitness, and mental toughness. The most important of these, I believe, is mental toughness. Often a race can be decided by the question of which crew wants to win more than the other. When one person in a crew breaks, I want to be in the boat in which nobody found an excuse for not rowing harder.
I like racing in eights because eights are the fastest boats to race and they demand the greatest teamwork from a crew. Effectively moving an eight requires much more nine individual efforts, and that combined effort is rewarding.
row2k - What are your strengths as both a student and an athlete?
Ryan Archer - I believe my greatest strength is determination. When I commit to do something, I will do everything within my power to see that I accomplish it. For rowing, this often means putting in extra hours of training on the erg or spending time practicing technical elements of the stroke. This is made easier when I am spending my time doing things that I enjoy.
I am somebody who is motivated by data and results, and I use this to my advantage as well. I have a detailed spreadsheet logging every workout that I do, and I can use this information to compare my performance on different days and to direct and motivate my training. This is also applicable to my academic work. My research in computer science and my classes often involve processing and manipulating data.
row2k - What has been your most memorable race so far and why?
Ryan Archer - My most memorable race is my race in the second varsity lightweight eight against Columbia at Dartmouth last year. The week before, our second boat had had disappointing results against Yale. They had moved ahead of us from the start, and we had done nothing to diminish their lead throughout the race. We spent the next week working on application of power, and when Columbia arrived the next week, we were ready to race.
Columbia took the lead from the start, but this time, as a boat, we kept our mental focus and were not disheartened. Columbia was ahead of us for a substantial portion of the race, but we never let them get out of reach. When it came time to finish the race, we put all of the technique, effort, and focus together in a way that we had not done the week before. We won that race because, as a boat, we refused to accept defeat.
row2k - How has this season gone, and what are your goals for the spring?
Ryan Archer - This has been a year of transition for the Dartmouth lightweights. Last year the lightweight team's head coach Dan Roock announced that he would be leaving Dartmouth for a position at the Craftsbury Small Boat Training Center.
In August, the director of athletics at Dartmouth announced that Sean Healey would fill this position. Healey was previously the freshman lightweight rowing coach at Cornell, so I imagine taking on the role of head coach has been a learning experience for him. Healey has stepped up to new responsibilities as a head coach, and he has been getting to know our team at Dartmouth. For my teammates and me – similarly – the task has been to adapt to a new style of coaching. Some elements of our training are consistent with last year, but there are new ideas as well as variations on the old.
I would say that the Dartmouth lightweights' results this fall were disappointing and were not representative of how we had been performing during practice. Speaking for the varsity lightweights, we had a poor showing at both the Head of the Charles and the Princeton Chase. We have been working hard this winter and picking up speed at least on the ergometer. Results in the fall do not necessarily accurately indicate performance for the spring, and I expect that our hard work this winter will pay dividends in the spring. My hope is that this spring the Dartmouth lightweights will be as fast as possible in every boat.
row2k - What are some of your interests away from the boathouse?
Ryan Archer - When I am not at the boathouse, I enjoy running. I consider myself lucky to go to a school that lies on the Appalachian Trail, so there are some fantastically scenic places to run, hike, and explore nearby. I also enjoy playing squash with my friends at school, and I play squash with my dad when I am at home.
This year I am working on my senior thesis for the computer science major at Dartmouth, so I have become more involved in a long-term research project. My project group is working to improve methods for testing devices powered by harvested energy.
row2k - What are you studying at Dartmouth and do you have any plans yet for after graduation?
Ryan Archer - At Dartmouth I am studying computer science and French. I do not yet have any concrete plans for after graduation, but I am looking for software development jobs, and unless something changes in the next few months, the job search will remain among my plans.
Fitness will continue to be an important part of my life. I would like to tackle running marathons in the future, and I expect I will pick up some new hobbies and find other challenges.