The doctors thought I was suffering from COVID. Turns out, I had Stage 4 cancer.

  • Ed Bird, 66, first started riding the unicycle when he was 13.

  • Experimental treatments helped get him back in the saddle after a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.

  • A one-time radiation surgery killed the last of his cancer.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Ed Bird. It has been edited for length and clarity.

When I was about 13, I saw someone in my neighborhood riding a unicycle. I had never been a very coordinated kid, but something about seeing that cycle made me want to learn how to ride. I scored an old unicycle at a garage sale a while later, picking up a lifelong passion.

In the first few weeks, there were quite a few bruises. But I love a challenge. I'm an engineer, and even as a teenager anything technical caught my attention, so I was determined to unlock the unicycle. Once I taught myself, I got my brother riding, then other kids in the neighborhood. We would tear through the fields to get our mom a gallon of milk or shoot basketball on our unicycles at the school.

Truth be told, most of the other boys were better than me. But I was the one who stuck with it. There were periods of my life I didn't ride, but I always came back to it. Once, I went about a decade without getting on, but it turns out riding a unicycle is like riding a bike: you don't forget. Riding the unicycle — proving to myself that I could still do it — became an important part of my life. I rode on my 60th birthday and started a tradition that was entertaining for the grandkids. But a few years ago, I started to worry about whether I'd be able to ride again.

A lingering cough wasn't caused by COVID, but cancer

It was 2020, during the height of COVID. Just before my annual physical, I developed a cough that I just couldn't shake. Both my parents had cancer, and I've always been particular about my lungs, so I was worried.

At first, the doctor thought it might be COVID, but when the cough got worse and worse, he ordered a CT scan. That showed tumors on my right kidney, adrenal gland, and spine.

Hearing that I had another type of cancer was pretty devastating. I kept thinking two things: first, I was so grateful it wasn't my wife, Mary, whom I've been married to for 41 years. I couldn't handle it if it were Mary. Second, I wanted to be there for my grandkids, some of whom live right next door. I wanted to be around to teach them how to build a birdhouse, create things in my backyard workshop, and ride a unicycle.

Immunotherapy worked better than doctors had hoped

When I learned I had stage 4 cancer, my analytical brain kicked in. I told the doctors, let's make a plan and move forward. I'm old enough that death didn't scare me like it used to, but I wanted to give myself the best possible chance.

Doctors started me on an experimental type of immunotherapy, and it worked better than anyone imagined. I'd had some symptoms that I didn't even realize were related to cancer — like rashes, anemia, and that cough. Within two weeks, they were gone, and I felt my energy levels returning.

At the end of treatment, I needed an MRI that lasted four hours and 45 minutes. I'm claustrophobic, so that was a mental battle for me. I just kept thinking of the grandkids and that unicycle.

An experimental treatment killed the rest of my cancer in one session

The MRI revealed that I still had cancer on my kidney and on two vertebrae in my spine. Doctors removed the kidney, which had a four-pound tumor wrapped around it. The cancer on my spine wouldn't be so easy, but doctors explained I had a good treatment option: Memorial Hermann Hospital is one of the few in the nation that do stereotactic spinal radiosurgery, a type of radiation that can kill cancer in one session.

Doctors molded a sled to fit my body and tattooed small targets on my back. Then, I climbed into the machine. The nurses said I asked so many technical questions that they learned about the machine and technology. I was just so fascinated. I had a 45 minute treatment on one side, then 45 minutes on the other, which killed off the last of the cancer.

A few weeks later, I rode my unicycle down my long driveway to get the mail. The seat of a unicycle is called a saddle, so I told Mary I was literally back in the saddle after treatments. There's no coasting on a unicycle; You need constant tension on the pedals to stay balanced. But once you figure out how to manage that challenge, the ride is so much fun — kind of like life.

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