Brett Weitzel is uncomfortable with the idea that his physical abilities are in any way amazing. "It's not like I'm working out like crazy. It's just I'm going out and doing the stuff I used to do that I'm excited to be able to do again," he says. Weitzel, who skis, bikes and kayaks, lost his right leg to a third bout of cancer about eight months ago. "Anything's really possible if you're willing to figure it out," says Weitzel. Almost as an afterthought, he adds, "or if you're willing to do it at a slower pace than someone who has two legs."
He is determined and optimistic yet realistic—attitudes that have helped him battle cancer since he was 17 years old. Scarcely three months after his amputation, he was already up on the slopes, learning how to ski again. Even more ambitious are his biking plans.
From June 7-14, Weitzel will be biking from Telluride, Colo., to Moab, Utah, with his girlfriend and a group of friends—a trip of almost 215 miles. He’ll be making the journey on an unmodified bike. As soon as they finish the ride, the group will meet up with more friends and family for a celebratory rafting trip.
He’s always been athletic. Thirteen years ago, before any talk of cancer, Weitzel was a star high school football, basketball and baseball player. When he began feeling pain in his right knee during his senior year, he blamed it on his active lifestyle. The doctor ordered an X-ray and inadvertently caught an image of Weitzel's lower femur and the lymphoma nestled inside the bone.
With treatment, Weitzel graduated and went on to college at the University of Colorado. There, while trying out for the basketball team, he fractured his weakened right femur; doctors told him he would never be able to run again. But after three years of physical therapy, he was able to run and play sports, including basketball and rugby. As for the doctors' discouraging prognosis? "It definitely motivated me," he says. "I'm not a person who likes to be told, You can't do this."
Slowed but still on track, he went to medical school at UNM. In 2005, however, knee pain once again plagued him, and he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. The radiation treatment received in high school to treat the lymphoma most likely induced the bone cancer. "It's a side effect in about 2 percent of patients," he says.
Weitzel dropped out of medical school for two years to undergo chemotherapy, and his entire femur was replaced with a prosthetic. He went back to school in 2007, but barely six months later, the cancer reappeared. This time there was no bone left—the cancer had migrated to the muscles in his thigh. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy were no longer options.
"To be honest, it was easier to have my leg amputated than it was to go through all the chemotherapy and all the surgeries I had before that three years earlier," Weitzel says. The key to recovery is to remain positive and try to see the silver lining, he adds. "People are more inclined to help you out, more likely to find ways for you to do what you need to do, if you're positive about it. Likewise, you're more inclined to probably do those things."
He attributes much of his recovery to his family and friends. "I was fortunate because I had an awesome support group and I think that made a huge difference for me," he says. Groups that help provide support for cancer patients were another benefit. The Children's Cancer Fund of New Mexico and the Erin Trujeque Memorial both helped Weitzel obtain scholarships to continue his education. "If you take the initiative to apply and show that you want to do something, there's all kinds of people out there willing to make a difference for you.”
Weitzel doesn't want his history to be just another inspirational account. "I'm not really so much interested in going out there and having another emotional, motivating story. I want to go out and start something that's going to benefit people like me who've gone through or are going through kind of unusual stuff that's really hard to get information about," he says.
He’s looking into ways to use his bike ride plans to help raise money for some of the organizations that have helped him through the years. "Everybody who hears about this—if it's the rafting guides in Moab, Utah, or the biking company in Telluride, Colo.—they've all kind of donated resources," he says. "I found my bike at Sports Outdoors, and they wanted to know what I am doing. When I told them, they said, What can we do to make it easier?”
Weitzel says he's just happy to be active again. “Now I don't take it for granted. I really enjoy it and appreciate the ability to go out there and relax or socialize or blow off some steam or just feel good after working out." He worked hard, but, he says, "if somebody wants to do it, regardless of situation, they'll figure out a way to do it."