Okulaja's Story, Part II

In the second installment of Inside Carolina's three-part interview with Ademola Okulaja, the former Tar Heel talks about the discovery last summer that he had cancer and his subsequent battle with the disease.

When did you first realize that there were some health concerns and as a world class athlete, what was that like for you to experience?

Everything went quite fast. This summer, it was June, the middle of June we had training camp for the National Team. I prepared pretty well. I was ready and then the first day of training camp everything was great and then at night I started having back problems. It was hurting.

The thing was that the year earlier we stayed in the same hotel and the mattresses were too soft and I had a pinched nerve so I thought, "Ok, this is the same thing as last year." So I got treatment for a pinched nerve, but the pain didn't go away. It got worse and worse and I'm thinking, "I can't practice." I kept trying and trying and I thought it was ridiculous because I thought I had a pinched nerve.

After that I flew to Cologne and got a MRI and then all of a sudden it was... well, it was July 9th, the day before my birthday. Sarcastically, it was an early birthday present.

We took the MRI and all of a sudden I came back in the room and there were like three or four doctors and I'm thinking that is not a good sign. When you leave and there is one doctor and you come back and there are four doctors it's not good.

They then said that I have a tumor on my vertebrae and I was like "Whoa" because nobody expects that answer, especially because I always prepare and I was always proud of that. I had a lot of emphasis on the eating habits, my lifestyle, I was very professional. You know, there was no smoking, no alcohol, drink a lot of water and all of that stuff.

So, of course you don't expect it. It was definitely like a punch in the face. I don't know how you want to describe it. It was just a hammer. All I thought was "Wow."

I guess it was a sinking feeling.

You can't really describe it. I guess it was like somebody punching you in the face with all of their might and you can't even react. I can remember that I just sat there still and was like "Ok." I think that the good thing in that situation was, first of all my attitude and my lifestyle was like... I never went into a hole. A lot of people will get that news and they will go into a hole and put their head into the sand. I never went in that hole.

It was funny to me because while she was talking to me I was already thinking, "Alright, what can we do? What is the next step to getting that thing out of me and working on me?" I think that is always the way I looked at life. You know, no matter what hits you, keep going.

Do you think that is part of being an athlete and having that mentality?

Yeah, I think that is definitely a part of me. You know, one part of me is the athletic side or the professional side. But at the same time, it is also my life and the way that I grew up. It was always, never put your head down no matter what comes at you. Go in swinging. You know you've got to fight. Go in heads up and go at them. That is my lifestyle and the attitude that I was brought up with and it is the way that I approached this as well.

So yeah, we did some more tests and it was, like I said, June 9th, the day before my birthday. I drove home and I then could tell the great news to my wife.

How do you tell her that?

It was very hard. I didn't want to tell her but, you know of course you have to. The first thing was that they had to remove my one vertebrae. So I knew a lot of good doctors in Cologne. That is why I flew there and they immediately organized an operation from one of the top vertebrae specialists in Germany and in Europe.

January 2009 (Stern Magazine)
He was going on vacation on the 12th, and so he said he'll take me on the 11th. He would do the operation on the 11th. Everything went quick, you know, from the 9th to the 11th, that is not much time.

So I told him I'll do it if I can go home for one day because I don't want to do this operation without seeing my wife. And, of course, I went to see her face to face. I've got to tell her face to face. I'm not going to call her and just tell her this news.

He said, "Ok" and so I went home and told her and it was quite hard. But my wife is also a very strong woman. Of course, we all got together and it was crying and this and that, but it had to be done.

So, like I said, I went home and then the next day right back and then after that I had the operation and it went very well. He removed the 7th vertebrae and I've now got this metal piece in there. After that he kept doing tests and the reason my vertebrae broke is that the cancer that I have was growing in my vertebrae and it broke it from within. It was so strong that it broke it from within.

The whole time I was practicing the doctor said I was more than lucky because if I would have done a wrong move or taken a hit on it, the vertebrae would have shattered and it is so close to the spinal cord that if one piece would have gone into the spinal cord I could have been paralyzed. So of course, bad news, but at the same time I was very lucky that nothing happened. Because you get hard news that you've got cancer, but it could have been harder news to say that you've got cancer and you are paralyzed. That is a little too harsh.

So I was very lucky and, like I said, he removed everything but still I had the cancer in my body. That was in July and then in August my second son was going to be born so I talked to the doctors and said that I will take a break: first of all to recover from the surgery and second, to see the birth of my son.

So, in the beginning of September, I began my chemotherapy which I just finished two weeks ago. For like six months I was in and out of the hospital.

How tough was that?

It was - whoa - it was three phases and each phase had different steps within it. The first two phases went well. Then, also the doctor said that it was the way that I always treated my body and that I was healthy and an athlete.

But then the third was the high dosage and it just hit me. It was the toughest thing ever. I've never experienced anything close. I had absolutely no energy. I couldn't do anything and you know for me and my personality being an athlete and always fighting, and then all of a sudden I was just in the hospital in the bed, just helpless. The only thing I could do - and I was happy about that - I made it to the bathroom and back, but that was it. That was the only thing I could do. That was the only energy I had.

And then, of course, you are hooked up to all of those cords and all of these liquids going into your body. It was a humbling experience: mentally and physically it was a very, very tough time for me.

Well, you are two weeks out of chemo now. Are you beginning to feel a little bit better? How do you feel now?

The high dosage I had to do twice. They said the way they do it and the program I was in I had to do it twice. Like I said it was three phases. The first phase had five steps in it. The second phase had just one step. And the third phase had two steps.

The first step of the third phase was the hardest. It was because the chemo and right after that was the stem cell transplant with my own stem cells and that was like I described, the hardest. Then I had like eight weeks off. Then I had the same thing again. The high dosage with the stem cell transplantation.

They said the second time, the body absorbs it and it is not as hard and the second time was definitely easier than the first. Like I said, the first I was like, about ten to twelve days I was just flat. I couldn't do anything and the second time it was only two or three days.

So, the second time I recovered much quicker. The first time I came out of the hospital I was like a vegetable, just laying at the house and barely doing anything and the second time I came out and you can almost say I hit the ground running.

It was definitely much better. Of course, it is not the greatest when you see your body going through a whole lot of changes. Right now, though, I'm back to "working out." I put working out in quotations because it is not like working out like playing ball, but I do go into a pool and do small exercises. I always call them granny exercises. It is not like I go to the weight room and throw around 250 on the bench press. Now when I go into the weight room, it is five to ten pound dumbbells that I hold and I'm sweating.

You mentioned changes in your body. Tell us about that a little bit.

Well, after the chemo, of course there are so many liquids that go through you. At one time, I only lost like five or ten pounds. But then, one time I gained I think 20 pounds. Because I'd get all of the medicine, like cortisone, and that absorbs a lot of liquid so my face was super puffy. I even had a little gut.

I bet you've never had that before.

Um, no. But my wife smiled at it and said, "Now I know how you will look when you get old."

Tomorrow, in Part III, Okulaja discusses his long term outlook.

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