Hiker with lymphoma finds healing on 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail
In April, 23-year-old Andy Lyon set off north on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. About a month ago, he reached White Pass, Wash., and discovered his Hodgkin's lymphoma had flared up.
YAKIMA — You're 23 years old with recurring cancer.
Do you withdraw from society? Visit every doctor you can find?
Or embark on an epic adventure?
Andy Lyon chose adventure. In April, the Laguna Beach, Calif., native loaded his backpack and set off alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada.
Now, just 361 miles from the finish in British Columbia and facing the last few weeks of safe weather, Lyon's Hodgkin's lymphoma has flared up again. But he's hoping a new treatment he received Wednesday will get him back on the trail at White Pass by this weekend.
Lyon was diagnosed in 2008 during his second semester at University of California, Berkeley, where he was studying astrophysics (hence his trail nickname, "Astro"). He went through chemotherapy and headed back to school, until the lymphoma returned in late 2009.
He received a stem-cell transplant but stayed in remission only three months before the cancer reappeared in March 2010. His doctors were grim.
"They still wanted to do more chemo, but I said, 'No thanks; I'm gonna explore some other options,' " Lyon said in an interview at Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital. "I kind of went on a healing journey, a healing quest."
His exploration led him to naturopathic doctors, yoga, meditation, alternative nutrition, a traditional type of Hindu medicine called ayurveda, and even a shaman.
It was during a 10-day silent meditation retreat in January that Lyon decided to do the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT.
"It wasn't just an idea; that's what I was going to do," he recalls. "It's almost like I didn't have a choice. I knew it was going to happen."
He started April 7 after extensive preparations. He invested in an ultra-lightweight backpack, sleeping bag and tent, which together weigh less than 5 pounds. With food and water, his pack hovers just above 20 pounds.
That's a good thing, as he has to walk about 20 miles a day through often grueling terrain: The PCT passes through the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Mojave Desert in California, then through the Cascades in Oregon and Washington.
But through all the obstacles — he says that the mental challenge is greater than the physical — Lyon has remained positive.
"To be honest, I kind of decided to stop worrying about my health, because I found that worrying about it was more unhealthy than just ... living," he said.
"I knew that ... whatever happened on the trail, even if I died on the trail, that would be the right thing. That would be my time and my place to go, and what better way to go than on an amazing mountain?"
His mother, who chronicles his journey through a blog and sends him food along the way, is on board.
"I just want him to be happy," said Betsy Gosselin, who came to Yakima to help arrange treatment for her son. "Obviously, I wasn't going to say no ... This was his dream. This is what he'd determined was going to save his life. ... You can't take that away from your child."
'My own two feet'
The hike had been going fairly well until about a month ago. That's when Lyon started noticing pain and numbness in his right leg, which sometimes caused it to give out beneath him. At White Pass, he got a ride into Yakima and checked into Memorial on Saturday night.
A large tumor pressing on his spinal cord could cause paralysis if left untreated, the doctors said. Fortunately, since Lyon's last hospital visit, a new treatment has been approved for lymphoma patients who have already tried a stem-cell transplant.
An intraveneous infusion of a drug called brentuximab vedotin causes tumors to disappear or significantly shrink in 32 to and 40 percent of patients, studies say. Lyon is optimistic that it will also act quickly, and that he'll be back on the trail by Saturday after receiving the treatment Wednesday morning.
But he'll need to take it easy for a time. To that end, Pacific Crest Outfitters at Indian Creek Corrals on White Pass is providing horses and a wrangler for at least part of the journey while Lyon recovers.
Not for long, though.
"I don't think that I'll want to ride a horse the entire rest of the trail," Lyon said. "I began it walking, I intended to do it walking, and I'd like to finish the trail on my own two feet."