Loading

Striking Out Cancer

Adam Whitt has never shied away from a challenge. He played basketball, tennis, and baseball, but due to his small stature, he was not recruited out of high school. Growing up in Carson City, he enrolled at the University of Nevada in Reno, 35 minutes away.

“In 2011, I went to the head coach’s office at Nevada, two weeks before the season, and asked to try out. I went to the prospect camp—pitched three innings—and the pitching coach gave me another one-month trial in the fall. I went to my first meeting and all the people were bigger than me and could throw harder. It was intimidating, but I knew I could compete. I had a pretty good fall, but head coach Gary Powers said they didn’t have a spot. The plan was to practice and work out every day on my own away from the team. I wound up putting on 60 pounds during the offseason.”

Adam ate 10,000 calories a day. Many times, he ate until he got sick. He did whatever it took to put on the required weight. He gained 55 pounds to go from a gangly 150 to a thicker 205. His velocity increased as a result, topping out around 85 miles per hour. The next spring, he made the team. However, coaches told him he would be the last man on the roster and asked about changing his pitching style from a standard overhand to a sidearm or submarine style.

Adam agreed and became an integral part of Nevada’s baseball team. After suffering through a losing campaign during his freshman year, the squad won the Mountain West Conference after his junior season. Adam was named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers of America Stopper of the Year Watch List, ranked third in career appearances and second in career saves. In 2015, he was drafted by the Houston Astros and spent the next two seasons playing minor league baseball.

Left: Whitt pitching in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League during college. Right: Whitt pitching professionally with the Quad Cities River Bandits in Davenport, Iowa

Despite early success, baseball did not pan out for Adam. He was released and joined his then-girlfriend in Salt Lake City where she was going to pharmacy school. Adam was “floating around” before getting a job at a tennis facility. In 2017, the couple got married. Just six months later, he started feeling sick and losing large amounts of weight. After experiencing vision problems, he went for a blood test. Another challenge, the most difficult of Adam’s life, began to take shape.

“I remember Dr. T [Srinivas K. Tantravahi, MBBS, MRCP] calling on a Tuesday to say I needed a bone marrow biopsy. They met me at the front of Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) and expected me to be in a wheelchair because my white blood count was 300,000 [normal is 4,500 - 11,000]. It was difficult to get a sample because of how dense my bone marrow was. Within three hours of the biopsy, I started chemo.”

Adam was diagnosed with chronic myeloid (or myelogenous) leukemia (CML), a rare, slowly progressing blood cancer that typically affects older people. The average age at diagnosis is around 64 years old. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 9,000 new cases of CML are diagnosed in the United States. yearly.

“The first five days after diagnosis were the hardest—physically and mentally. You’re doing these tests and biopsies; it is a whirlwind. When you get home, there’s a chance to catch your breath and create a plan of action."

"YOU’RE ALWAYS THINKING, WILL IT GET WORSE? WILL IT GET BETTER? IT’S EASY TO GET DEPRESSED AND FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE. WONDERING IS THE WORST PART."

During chemo, Adam barely had energy for anything other than walking around the block. It was a reality check—a far cry from the strenuous exercises he performed while chasing his baseball dreams.

“You go from being a professional athlete to this. You go numb. You adopt a mindset of living hour to hour, surviving day by day. I knew I could not change the fact I had cancer. I couldn’t feel sad for myself.”

Adam’s competitive nature—something he relied upon during his baseball career—helped him during this new challenge.

“I had pride in myself for working so hard to get my body to that of a pro athlete. Regressing physically made me insecure and weak. I could not trust my body. It was failing me. There’s just so much stress. You’re always thinking, will it get worse? Will it get better? It’s easy to get depressed and focus on the negative. Wondering is the worst part"

"Not many people my age get CML, so most of the patients at HCI were older. I would talk to them to ask how they were doing so well. They told me the same thing: keep a positive outlook. Don’t give up, because I had other people relying on me.”

Adam’s mother and father came to stay with him for about a week at the onset of his treatment. His younger brother Avery stayed in touch throughout the entire process and constantly checked in. Adam even built a relationship with someone he had never met—a man named Leonard, who saw him pitch at Nevada.

"SO MANY THINGS ARE OUT OF YOUR CONTROL. SPORTS TEACH YOU ABOUT LIFE.”

“When I was first diagnosed, Leonard reached out to my dad and then called me. He had cancer and struggled as well. He knew what it was like to be scared and vulnerable. Once you share something with someone else, whether it’s playing a sport or dealing with cancer, you’re their teammate for life.”

His best teammate through it all has been his wife, Sara.

“She pushed me to get better. I remember getting the diagnosis of CML, the week before her finals, right before rotations. She worked so hard to get to this prestigious university. She grinded for two-and-a-half years and I told her she needed to stay in school. Her teachers were very accommodating. In May 2019, she graduated on time. I am so proud of everything she has accomplished while being there for me the entire time.”

Whitt and his wife, Sara

Adam’s outlook was also buoyed by Dr. Tantravahi and the atmosphere at HCI.

""Dr. T and his team have been incredible. You feel so safe here. I could not ask for better treatment. Usually, when you go to the doctor, it's unnerving. But Dr. T and his team made it a safe haven. Top to bottom, people’s kindness and willingness to help make HCI a special place. I want to show people what they do here because it saved my life. I didn’t know why baseball ended the way it did. Now I know someone, somewhere put me in Salt Lake City for a reason.”

Dr. Tantravahi set up some check marks for Adam within his first year to make sure he was responding to treatment. At the three-month mark, Adam was not doing well and started to panic. His numbers were improving but not hitting the goals set forth by his medical team.

Adam began taking an oral chemotherapy every night. With it came side effects: nausea, joint pain, and flu-like symptoms. Dr. Tantravahi recommended increasing the dosages since Adam did not meet the goals expected at the three-month mark.

"DR. T AND HIS TEAM HAVE BEEN INCREDIBLE. YOU FEEL SO SAFE HERE. I COULD NOT ASK FOR BETTER TREATMENT."

“Tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs), a type of oral chemotherapy drug, are very effective in the treatment of CML, but most patients require long-term therapy,” Dr. Tantravahi explains. “Even though most patients are able to tolerate TKIs well, a majority experience side effects on a daily basis that could impair their quality of life.”

“I felt a lot of effects, but at the six-month mark, my blood cell numbers were getting better,” Adam adds. “I kept improving over time and I am still taking the medication. I laugh because I’m kind of a case study at this point.”

When Adam started feeling better, his doctors encouraged him to start to be more active. “That’s when the golfing really took off,” he says.

Adam began working out and golfing every day. Despite being relatively new to the sport, he now has a ball head speed at almost 200 miles per hour—much higher than the average of 133 mph. His max drive of 427 yards is one of the top 15 distances in the country. Adam competed in the Utah Open and two other tournaments in August 2021, and he continues to teach golf in Salt Lake City.

“I had no aspirations to be a professional athlete, let alone a golfer. When I started, it was easy to do from a physical standpoint. I can ride the cart. Be outside. Take my time. Not keep score. It was really the only sport I could play during the pandemic and be socially distanced.”

And yet, golf seemed like the natural sport to take on after baseball. Both sports can be extremely humbling. They require an inordinate amount of mental fortitude and an acceptance that things do not always go as planned—a lot like a cancer diagnosis.

“I never understood why my mom made me do at least one season of a sport growing up,” Adam says. “Now I know. You hold yourself accountable. You pick other people up. Teammates and coaches form support staff, like doctors and nurses. When I pitched, I couldn’t control whether the batter swung and connected. So many things are out of your control. Sports teach you about life."

The Adam Whitt Foundation provides support services and equipment to encourage participation in youth sports.

Created By
Drew Wiseman
Appreciate

Credits:

Photos - Jonathan Martinez Editing - Meredith Vehar, Lisa Anderson