WolfPack men’s soccer player Sebastian Gardner focusing on “the beauty of life” after taking on Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Adam Williams, Sports Editor Ω
For almost two years, Sebastian Gardner has been trying to have the last word with cancer.
Ever since the 25-year-old Vernon native, a midfielder for the TRU WolfPack men’s soccer team, was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in January of 2012, he’s been desperate to get healthy.
He had done everything right. He endured the chemotherapy, the radiation and changes in his diet and lifestyle. On July 5, 2012, he was rewarded. His doctors said he was cancer free. He burst into tears on the streets of Vancouver that day while on the phone with his wife – fiancée at the time – Cassie Gardner.
But the elation was short-lived. Just six months later in January 2013, a routine check-up made all that feel like a distant memory. The cancer was back, and Sebastian hit rock bottom.
“The first bit of cancer wasn’t really rock bottom, and I think you really need to hit rock bottom before you make any changes that will really enhance your life,” Cassie said. “So when he had his relapse, he got desperate. A relapse at 24 is kind of crazy and kind of terrifying.”
The cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is a disease of the lymphatic system (the bodily system responsible for removing toxins, waste and other unwanted material, while producing and transporting white blood cells). It’s a tricky type of cancer, one that meant that, on top of the cancer, Sebastian also had to worry about otherwise benign illnesses like the flu, because as the disease progressed it would affect his body’s ability to fight infection. He was given a 95 per cent chance of recovery the first time he was diagnosed, but with his relapse the survival rate sank to 40 per cent.
But as Sebastian and Cassie both agree, he’s a stubborn man, and diminished odds or not, he wasn’t going to give up. He made changes in his life. He took control of his diagnosis and his treatment, no longer focusing solely on what doctors were telling him to do. Sebastian went from a state of fear to a state of control. He became an active participant in his recovery.
Sebastian underwent two months of chemotherapy in Kamloops before undergoing a bone marrow transplant at Vancouver General Hospital at the end of April. Doctors harvested healthy stem cells from his bone marrow before putting him through six days of aggressive chemotherapy. His stem cells were then reintroduced with the hope they would begin to produce healthy cells and he would begin to recover.
“Recovery was kind of the worst part for me because the chemo was still doing its thing and my blood levels just kept dropping and dropping and dropping . . . until the stem cells were able to find their way back to the bone marrow and produce healthy cells again,” Sebastian said. “Thank God for medicine and science.”
He spent those weeks in Vancouver drifting in and out of consciousness. He returned to Kamloops around the beginning of June, and it didn’t take long before he began to try to get back in shape for the soccer season. Despite what everyone around was telling him, he still held out hope he could play soccer in 2013. When he first got home, a 15-minute walk left him so drained he had to nap for four hours afterwards, but slowly things were getting better. He was seeing progress.
Part of his treatment plan this time around was making use of alternative medicine. He began undergoing breath integration therapy with Lori Putoto at Kamloops’s Breath Integration Counselling and Therapy Centre shortly after his relapse. Putoto, herself a cancer survivor (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), quickly became a close friend. She and Sebastian connected over their similar diagnoses and the journey to recovery. The therapy helped Sebastian achieve a more holistic recovery, taking care of him emotionally and spiritually, not just physically.
Breath integration therapy, as the centre describes it, is a method of counselling using self-examination coupled with breathing techniques in an effort to help a person hear subconscious thoughts, feel the emotions around them and change existing beliefs.
“I think in Canada, we’re mostly focused on a Western model of medicine – the medical model – you see a doctor, you get a diagnosis, you hit a treatment plan, take some pills. It’s very statistical,” Sebastian said. “So I was kind of stuck in that procedure for almost two years now, and I just kind of wanted to discover other things.”
“No one pays attention to his mind or his spirit, and that component was really the game-changer for him,” Cassie added.
Between the help of Putoto and his doctor, Habib Sadeghi, a Los Angeles-based doctor of osteopathic medicine, Sebastian felt he was developing a treatment plan that worked for him.
“The medical model isn’t very empowering, so I just felt like I was a victim to my diagnosis and just getting put through cookie-cutter steps to get better,” he said. “I just felt like there was other processes that I could attempt.”
On top of his breath integration therapy, Sebastian underwent a blood detox and a heavy metal removal to rid himself of toxins from chemotherapy. Some of his treatments weren’t available to him here in Canada, and he believes the heavy metal removal was especially important in speeding up his recovery.
He focused on things that felt healing for him – a good diet, strengthening his connection with his Christian faith, reframing negative situations and trying to make them more positive for himself and others. He paid attention to his strengths and tried to have more patience with himself.
“He had literally built a ‘sac of shit’ around his heart,” Cassie said, reflecting the words Dr. Sadeghi used to describe Sebastian’s cancer. “Through the emotional healing he’s just the image of health right now.”
Sebastian and Cassie didn’t face their challenges alone. Their relationship remains incredibly strong. Sebastian described Cassie as his “rock” in an article in last April’s The Omega, and they’ve been there for each other throughout Sebastian’s recovery. They had family and friends there to support them and they also had their athletics families (Cassie played women’s soccer at TRU) to fall back on.
“Both coaches, John Antulov and Sean Wallace, have been supportive throughout,” Sebastian said. “They’ve come and visited us at the house on shitty days, been there for fundraisers for me, always given me the time. They know how to manage me quite well, too, as a player . . . they monitor me. I sometimes go too hard and tell them I’m fine. They know me so well now after five years of playing for them, they know when to call it quits for me.”
In March, Sebastian’s teammates held a fundraiser for the Gardners, which helped them cover their mortgage while Sebastian was undergoing treatment. The money also allowed Cassie to take time off of work to be with Sebastian during his recovery.
Soccer gave Sebastian a goal to work towards, even on those days where he could only muster up the energy to walk for 15 minutes.
“It was always something that I did hold on to, and I kind of created it, I think, with that belief that I could possibly be able to play soccer again for my last year of school,” he said. “There was a lot of people doubting me, like doctors told me not to rush back . . . I just felt like I could do it, so why not.”
Sebastian is now back in remission, and though his doctors have suggested that he undergo radiation treatment, he’s putting that off, instead focusing on soccer.
“I feel so confident in where I am right now in my healing process, I feel physically fine, emotionally fine, just a wholesome person,” he said. “To me playing soccer was way more healing than going to a medical clinic and getting radiation in Kelowna.”
He returned to Hillside Stadium on Oct. 5 for a game against the UBC-Okanagan Heat, which the WolfPack won 4-2. While Sebastian wasn’t sure his return provided a boost to his teammates, Cassie said they’re inspired by him. He’s now able to play more than half a soccer game at his best, and he’s still improving every day.
“I was so emotional. I was so thrilled. It was so cool,” Cassie said of his return. She was in the stands watching him play that day. “They say, typically, the recovery from a bone marrow transplant is six months to one year. He’s right at his five-month mark right now and he epitomizes health and fitness.
“He’s taken charge of himself and it translates to athletics too.”
Sebastian said returning to the soccer pitch was an amazing feeling. It’s an experience he’s more appreciative of now than he was before his diagnosis.
“To be able to graduate this year and play out my fifth year after all I’ve been through is just so rewarding and so healing at the same time,” he said. “I find freedom playing soccer; it’s a way to express myself. I think before . . . I called it a healthy distraction, but now it’s not so much a distraction, it’s just who I am, my being. I love soccer and it’s healing.”
Cassie said the last two years have changed Sebastian, but not just in the physical sense – as a soccer player, too. She believes it’s only going to improve his play, and considering Sebastian hopes to return to the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association’s national championship this year, his play has never been more important.
“He’s more humble now. You can tell on the field he’s just so grateful to be there,” she said. “There’s a grace there that I think he’ll find success with.”
Sebastian is in control of his health now. He was once incredibly fearful of his diagnosis, but now he no longer relies strictly on the outcome of tests or the tone of his oncologist’s voice on the phone. He’s confident in his own mind that he’s healthy.
Now, he’s finishing his education, planning to travel and focusing on starting a career in social work. Eventually he and Cassie hope to start a family. He was also just named an academic all-Canadian for last season. Things are falling into place. For the first time in a long while, he’s able to focus more of his attention on the things that make him happy and that feel healing.
“It’s the beauty of life, I suppose,” he said.