By Keysha Drexel
Adam Quarles said there are likely to be moments in the 75-mile bike ride he will make on May 17 when he will feel he can’t possibly go any farther.
But the Hoover native and Forest Park resident said he will have plenty of inspiration to draw from as he pushes himself to keep pedaling in the annual Ride of Love cycling event to benefit Camp Smile-A-Mile.
“I may get to the point where I feel like I can’t pedal anymore, but what will motivate me will be knowing that I beat pediatric cancer and that there are a lot of other kids who are fighting their own battles with cancer right now,” Quarles said. “I want to give these kids hope that they can beat cancer and keep going.”
Quarles and other cyclists will gather in Tuscaloosa May 17 to embark on a ride to raise money for Camp SAM, a camp for children with cancer. The camp is on Lake Martin in Alexander City.
Those participating in the fundraising event will have the option of completing a 150-mile ride or a 75-mile ride from Tuscaloosa to Camp SAM.
For Quarles, 32, riding to Camp SAM on May 17 will be a homecoming of sorts.
Quarles was diagnosed at the age of 2 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a relatively rare form of cancer that attacks the body’s soft tissues and is most commonly seen in children ages 1-5.
“I don’t remember a lot about my treatment, but I do remember getting spinal taps and I vividly remember having to be really, really still when they put me on the table to get the radiation,” Quarles said.
He went through two years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments and went into remission two weeks before his fifth birthday, just a few months after Camp SAM first opened.
“I went to Camp SAM that first year, but I don’t really remember a lot about it because I was so young,” Quarles said. “I do know that it was great for my parents because back then, you didn’t have the Internet and all of these support groups, and that’s still a big part of what Camp SAM does. It also provides support for the families of the kids with cancer because they understand this affects the whole family.”
Quarles said his parents, Robert and Juletta, signed him up for Camp SAM every year until he was about 12 years old.
“They saw how good it was for me and how much I enjoyed it,” Quarles said. “There were other kids who were going through the same thing, and it was a place where we could just be ourselves. It gave me a feeling of belonging.”
That feeling of belonging could be hard to come by outside of Camp SAM, Quarles said.
“When you’re a pediatric cancer survivor or if you are battling pediatric cancer, you can feel very different than everyone at school,” Quarles said. “You might be shorter than everyone, you might be bald because of the chemo, you might be missing a limb. Sometimes, you don’t want to have to explain all of that to everyone you meet. That’s why camp was so important. There were people to talk to about those things who would understand it and at the same time, it was okay not to talk about it.”
Quarles stopped going to Camp SAM in the summers when he was about 12 years old and took up golf.
“I got really competitive in golf, and that took over my summers for a while,” he said.
When he was 13, Quarles started attending Camp SAM’s teen camps.
“Those are some of my favorite memories. We’d go skiing in Gatlinburg or whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River, and it was just a whole lot of fun,” he said. “I made some really great friends during that time.”
Those friendships helped Quarles navigate not only the raging waters of the Ocoee but also the side effects of being a pediatric cancer survivor, he said.
“Just because you beat cancer when you’re a kid doesn’t mean it isn’t going to impact you down the road,” Quarles said. “Pediatric cancer survivors have a lot of complications. The treatments can mess with your hormones, your teeth and there are a lot of long-term side effects that we are just now learning about as survivors get older.”
For Quarles, those side effects manifested in several ways.
“I’ve had hormone deficiencies since my early teens, and I didn’t hit a growth spurt until much, much later than my peers,” he said. “The radiation therapy damaged my pituitary gland. It also affected my teeth. I basically never grew any permanent teeth, so now I’m dealing with lots of dental implants.”
Quarles said many pediatric cancer survivors face similar changes long after they have gone into remission.
“Sometimes you don’t see the full side effects until 20 years later,” Quarles said. “Those things are typically not covered by insurance, so it can be really frustrating.”
Quarles’ cancer treatment also affected him in other ways, he said.
“An oncologist once told my parents that because of the treatments I received, I would have learning disabilities,” he said. “The doctor told my parents I would probably have a hard time in math, so up until I was in high school, I just took the basic math classes, thinking that was the best I could do.”
But when he was a junior at Hoover High School, Quarles took the ACT, and his college counselor noticed that he did very well on the math section of the test.
“Paulette Pearson, the college counselor, did a really good job of encouraging everyone, and she encouraged me to take AP calculus,” Quarles said. “It just clicked with me and got me interested in a career in engineering.”
After graduating from Hoover High School, Quarles earned a degree in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and took an engineering job in Alaska.
“I got into cycling when I was living in Alaska and did a good bit of riding out there,” he said.
But while Alaska offered plenty of picturesque places to cycle, Quarles, now an engineer at Southern Nuclear, said he longed to be back home in Alabama.
“I really missed my family and the friends I made through Camp SAM’s Young Adult Retreat. I attended the very first retreat in 2004 but missed it in 2005 because I was studying abroad in France. Then I missed it again in 2006 and 2007 because I was living in Alaska.”
After moving back to Alabama, Quarles said, he got even more involved with the young adult group at Camp SAM.
“It’s a wonderful group and support system,” he said. “We support each other when we face challenges.”
And as it turned out, Quarles would need that support system to face another challenge.
After he started experiencing severe headaches, dizziness and nausea in 2009, Quarles’ primary doctor ordered an MRI and discovered a brain tumor.
“It was another gift of pediatric cancer. I had to have two brain surgeries and risked losing my hearing completely. I already had hearing problems in one ear due to the treatments I received as a child, and I was worried that if I had to have radiation for the brain tumor, I would go completely deaf,” he said.
Quarles had his first surgery to remove the brain tumor in November 2009 and then traveled to Duke University for the second surgery in February 2010.
“They were able to get all of the tumor, and I didn’t have to have radiation,” he said.
Quarles said it was during his latest battle with cancer that he learned the true value of the friendships he made through Camp SAM.
“Back when I had the brain tumor, it was my friends from the Young Adult Retreat who were among the most supportive and encouraging,” he said. “It was really moving to receive so many cards, phone calls and encouraging emails.”
While he was going through the treatment for the brain tumor, Quarles said he had a lot of time to reflect on his medical history and the struggles children with cancer face each and every day.
“I had just turned 28 and had no idea if I would be alive at 29, and it got pretty bad at one point after my second brain surgery,” Quarles said. “I had complications where the nerves that controlled my speech weren’t working so I wasn’t able to talk, and at the same time, I was going through intense nausea for about four days.”
During one of his darkest hours in the hospital in North Carolina after the brain surgery, Quarles said, his mind turned to the children he knew were going through their own pain in hospital beds in Alabama.
“I was going through pure hell, but I told myself that I had already beat cancer once and that there were kids out there who were going through a lot worse at that moment, and I knew I would make it,” he said.
Quarles said his experience inspired him to become a counselor at Camp SAM in 2012 and has motivated him to do all he can to raise money so that more pediatric cancer patients and survivors can experience what he did as a camper.
“I see all the inspiration and motivation I need to accomplish anything when I volunteer at the camp sessions,” he said. “Some of the kids can barely walk and sometimes you have to carry them, but they keep going.”
The 2014 Camp SAM Ride of Love will start at the IHOP in Tuscaloosa at 724 Skyland Blvd. at 5:30 a.m. May 17. For more information, visit www.campsam.org.