While battling cancer, sixth-grade teacher Kristen Adelman learned she had been chosen to be an Olympic torch bearer, one of those who would carry the flame on its route to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Recently, Adelman talked with Education World about the honor of carrying the torch and about her continuing fight against cancer.
Kristen Adelman was in the middle of training for a triathlon in the spring of 2000 when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of cancer. The Maryland sixth-grade teacher continued to train and compete, however, even while undergoing cancer treatment. Her inspirational fight against the disease earned her a nomination to carry the Olympic torch -- which she did proudly in Baltimore, on December 22, 2001. Out of about 210,000 nominations, 11,500 people were chosen to carry the torch. Winners were selected by committees of corporate sponsors and community agencies, who looked for everyday heroes; those who inspired achievement in others, motivated others by overcoming adversity, and embodied the inspirational spirit of the Olympic movement. Adelman, who recently underwent a second bone marrow transplant, currently is on a leave of absence from her job at St. Augustine School in Elkridge, Maryland.
Education World: Who nominated you to carry the Olympic torch and what was your response when you learned you had been selected?
Kristen Adelman: My best friend, Roseann Dougherty, nominated me to carry the Olympic torch. I later learned that several other friends, students, and family members had nominated me as well; but Coca Cola based its decision on Roseann's letter. My response was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I would be part of something so wonderful -- a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I also was honored that Roseann, a person I hold in the highest possible esteem, would choose me as someone who has had a tremendous influence on her life and on the lives of others in the community.
EW: How far did you carry the torch in Baltimore and what went through your mind as you did?
Adelman: I carried the torch .2 of a mile (about two blocks), and at least a million emotions flooded my heart and mind! I thought of my own long and continuing battle with cancer, that no matter how long the battle turned out to be, I would continue to fight. I thought of the battles so many other people wage and of how important it is to never give up.
Even though I was quite ill in July, I knew I would be carrying that torch in December. I thanked God for blessing me with this amazing experience. As I ran, I could see all my friends, family, and students and their families lining the blocks of Baltimore. Seeing them and knowing they were there for me was overwhelming. As a teacher and a Christian, my biggest goal has always been to touch the lives of others in a positive way and perhaps to make their lives a little better. Seeing them there helped me realize I was on the right track. I thought about how each day matters, that even though things don't always turn out the way we plan, we must do the best we can with what we have -- and be grateful. A much larger plan is at work and, even through tragedy, miracles take place.
EW: When and how was your cancer diagnosed?
Adelman: Originally my cancer was diagnosed in June of 2000. I was training for the spring triathlon season when I began experiencing difficulty breathing. At first, doctors thought the problems were sinus related, but within a few weeks, the symptoms became so severe I ended up in the emergency room. A chest X ray revealed an enormous mass sitting in my chest between my left lung and my heart.
EW: I understand you underwent a bone-marrow transplant on January 2. Who was the donor and what is the next step in your treatment?
Adelman: This was my second bone marrow transplant. The first one was done on January 6, 2001. In that one, they used my own stem cells, which were believed to be unaffected by the cancer. That made them the best option for a transplant, with the smallest possibility for complications. Unfortunately, six months later, in July 2001, I had a checkup, and the doctors discovered a new tumor. My only option was to have another bone marrow transplant. This time I needed a sibling whose bone marrow completely matched mine. I have only one sibling, so my chances for a match were very, very slim. The tissue typing began and about a week later I received the incredible news that my brother and I were a perfect match, which is usually only seen with identical twins. It was truly a miracle!
EW: You're an athlete. How has athletic training helped you during your illness?
Adelman: I've been an athlete my entire life. I grew up as a competitive gymnast. The words of wisdom from my coaches back then have stayed with me through my adult years, and I've applied those lessons to every area of my life. My coaches taught me self-discipline and how to work hard to achieve my goals. They taught me how important a positive attitude is; that if you don't achieve your goal right away, you keep at it until you do.
I also compete in ironman distance triathlons, marathons, adventure races, and duathalons. The endurance training has helped me fight this battle with cancer. Fighting cancer is like competing in an 11-hour triathlon. In the triathlon, there are points when you don't think you can keep going, when you don't want to keep going. You know you have to, though, and that if you dig deep within yourself you do have the strength you need to finish.
That is exactly how it has been with the cancer. I often have wondered what I was fighting so hard for; I often have wanted to give up. When it feels like I'm at the end, though, I look a little deeper inside, pray a little harder, and believe a little more. And I get what I need for one more day. Sometimes that's all it takes to get past a really tough point. This has been the longest and toughest endurance event yet. Once I've completed the cancer treatment, I will gladly take on an 11-hour triathlon!
The other huge part of my success in fighting this disease is that I know that God will either help me get better or give me the strength I need to deal with what I'm faced with.
EW: Have you been able to stay in touch with your students?
Adelman: I have been able to stay in touch with my students, which is really great. They are such amazing, thoughtful, caring people. We exchange letters by mail and by e-mail; some even come to my house to visit. I miss them so much!
This e-interview with Kristen Adelman is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.