How one man helped his best friend with a neuromuscular disorder hike 500 miles.
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MDA Live Unlimited

One day, Justin Skeesuck asked his longtime friend Patrick Gray, "Do you want to go across 500 miles of northern Spain with me?"

He was talking about the Camino de Santiago — a pilgrimage hike which, on foot, usually takes about a month to complete.

Today, people of all different religious and cultural backgrounds make the journey for many different reasons, and it would be challenging for anyone.


It was especially challenging for Skeesuck, who doesn't have use of his arms or legs.

Justin with his wife Kristin. Image via MDA/YouTube.

Skeesuck uses a wheelchair and has minimal upper arm and upper torso mobility due to multifocal acquired motor axonopathy (MAMA), a type of neuromuscular disorder that affects the body's motor functions.  

However, this wasn't always the case. Before the disorder began to take hold, he and Gray had a very physically active friendship.

As kids, they only lived a few miles apart and would often skateboard to each other's houses. But, once they reached college, Skeesuck's foot began to weaken, so they had to hang up their boards.

The progression of Skeesuck's disorder changed the dynamic of his friendship with Gray forever.

Gray and Skeesuck. Image via MDA/YouTube.

The hardest adjustment came in January 2010, when Skeesuck lost the use of most of his upper body. That's when he and Gray went through a dark period where it was incredibly difficult to feel hopeful.

Then, slowly but surely, they began to adapt.

Since he can no longer dress himself, bathe himself, or feed himself, his loved ones — like Gray — stepped up to help him. While certainly challenging, it strengthened their bond in a big way.

Gray pushing Skeesuck in his wheelchair. Image via MDA/YouTube.

"His willingness to invite me into the rawest and most difficult parts of life demonstrated a trust few people are given," writes Gray in an email.

Skeesuck and Gray's decision to hike the Camino was by far the greatest challenge the friends had undertaken.

The Camino de Santiago. Image via MDA/YouTube.

Skeesuck found himself inextricably pulled to it, but he knew he couldn't make the pilgrimage without his best friend. And when he asked Gray if he'd come with him, he didn't hesitate. Gray simply replied, "Yeah, I'll push you."

What followed were two years of careful planning and 35 days of an adventure they would never forget.

The pilgrimage had never been done by someone in a wheelchair, so their strategy had to be planned down to the smallest detail. In the end, it took over 100 people helping out to make it feasible.

Skeesuck on the trail with his helping hands. Image via MDA/YouTube.

Gray trained for 12 months, six times a week, pushing himself to the limit. Three months before the journey, he was pushing Skeesuck on all types of terrain, working to increase his endurance up to 12 miles at a time.

Meanwhile, Skeesuck prepped in a different way. The trip was quite expensive, so he created a fundraising campaign to help get them there.

"The journey was made possible by countless individuals providing grassroots support," Skeesuck writes.

They went into it with no expectations. They came back with a newfound strength of those who live life without limits.

Skeesuck and Gray on the trail. Image via MDA/YouTube.

The journey was more challenging than they could've anticipated, often in ways that had nothing to do with physical efforts. Both friends missed their families immensely and faced many personal demons along the way. For one thing, it was hard for Skeesuck to watch Gray and fellow helpers push themselves beyond their physical limits.

In the end, however, it taught him that such an offering can be a gift for everyone involved, no matter who's doing the physical pushing.

"Being willing to let someone pick up something for us is just as much a gift for them as it is for us," Gray explains. "The flip side is obvious."

Their life-changing experience inspired Gray and Skeesuck to help push others to achieve more.

Gray and Skeesuck. Photo via "I'll Push You."

That's why they decided to share their story with the world in a new book and documentary film, both entitled "I’ll Push You." They also started Push Inc. to present the film, and they’ve partnered with the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), which helps fund neuromuscular disorder and disease research that can lead to more people having experiences like this.

The film will be presented in more than 500 theaters across the county in a special one-night-only release and feature information about MDA and the work the organization does to support families like Justin’s.

That and Push Inc. are part of their post-Camino emphasis on motivating individuals and organizations to strive for what they thought was impossible. For Skeesuck, that starts with asking yourself why you want to get there.

"If your why is strong enough that no matter what you face you will continue on, then it’s time to look at the how," Skeesuck writes.

Everyone needs help every now and again. When that time comes, you'll want to have people you trust at your back, pushing you forward.

Watch Skeesuck and Gray's whole story here:

This beautiful friendship shows just how much is possible when you have a support system.

Posted by Upworthy on Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

The "Big 5" is an old term from the colonial era, denoting the five wild animals in Africa that were the most sought-after kills for trophy hunters. Killing those five—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo—meant ultimate success in the big-game hunting world.

Now there's a "New Big 5," but instead of a barbaric goal for trophy hunters, it's a beautiful goal for wildlife photographers.

The initiative was created by British wildlife photographer Graeme Green with the goal of raising awareness about threats to the world's animals including habitat loss, poaching, illegal animal trade, and climate change. In a global call for votes, 50,000 wildlife lovers shared which animals they most wanted to photograph or see in photos. And the winners are:

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Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

The "Big 5" is an old term from the colonial era, denoting the five wild animals in Africa that were the most sought-after kills for trophy hunters. Killing those five—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo—meant ultimate success in the big-game hunting world.

Now there's a "New Big 5," but instead of a barbaric goal for trophy hunters, it's a beautiful goal for wildlife photographers.

The initiative was created by British wildlife photographer Graeme Green with the goal of raising awareness about threats to the world's animals including habitat loss, poaching, illegal animal trade, and climate change. In a global call for votes, 50,000 wildlife lovers shared which animals they most wanted to photograph or see in photos. And the winners are:

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."