CrossFit Empowers Medical Team Member and Firefighter Owen Valuch to Beat Cancer
Owen Valuch has a handful of notable identities: CrossFit Games Medical staff since 2012 (currently Medical Team Manager), firefighter captain, paramedic for 27 years, athlete and former affiliate owner, just to name a few. One that he never anticipated adding to the list? Cancer survivor.
In early 2021, Valuch sustained a back injury doing deadlifts. In conversations about the pain with friends in the medical community, he ultimately ended up getting imaging done that led to the discovery of an aggressive disease.
“They found that my entire right side of my pelvis was being eaten away by bone cancer…it turned out to be Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a very rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It’s called PLB or primary lymphoma of the bone,” Valuch said. “And leading up to that, I had absolutely no idea. I had absolutely no clue that cancer is even something to consider.”
At this time, Valuch believed he was “the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life.” And, as one might imagine, being a very fit individual who suddenly has their reality turned upside down, the toll is substantial on both the mind and the body.
“My world went into the slowest paced sloth speed you could imagine. And while the world around me was in hyperspeed just going, and I couldn’t rest. I couldn’t sleep, I didn’t sleep for weeks. I lost weight due to nerves and stress. It was the worst time of my life. I was scared daily. I didn’t know who to turn to. I didn’t know what to think. I was envisioning not making it. You hear the word ‘cancer,’ and obviously you immediately spaz out, freak out, and you think it’s the end,” Valuch said.
“And it took a lot of soul searching and a lot of deep thought to realize that every day when I woke up — I wasn’t feeling bad. I wasn’t feeling sick. I wasn’t feeling hurt. I wasn’t feeling all these things that I was associating with, just being diagnosed with cancer or preparing to be diagnosed with cancer.”
Several weeks of tests and doctor visits passed, and it was ultimately concluded it’s likely a particulate from the fire department (and/or gear specifically) that was the initial root cause.
In the CrossFit community, we’ve often heard core tenets such as “training for life” or “preparing for the unknown and unknowable”, and Valuch used those principles to get through this dark period.
“I looked at it like a workout that I didn’t know the rep scheme, I didn’t know the time frame, didn’t know the movements, and I just had to tackle it one rep at a time, and that’s how I did it,” Valuch said.
“I’ve been involved in CrossFit since 2008 and literally I had to revert back to day one and learn how to walk again, learn how to function again at a higher rate, learn how to just do the basics, the ten components of physical fitness. I had to learn how to do that again, not realizing that something I learned twelve years ago, I’d have to go back to and relearn again. I just utilized CrossFit to get me through it.”
He underwent chemotherapy treatment from January to May of this year, and received the all clear in June.
“And now…” Valuch said, “It’s just learning how to live every day to day and taking on that new step in life that doesn’t derail me and make me freak out every day that I wake up.”
Just a few weeks ago at the 2022 NOBULL CrossFit Games, Valuch made an appearance to support the squad that is near and dear to his heart.
“My Games medical team…” Valuch said, pausing to collect his emotions. “You mean the world to me. That was one of my goals was to stand up there in front of them this year and say ‘thank you for the support’.
While in attendance, Valuch and several medical team members completed a workout named after the team manager himself. It’s a brutal one created by Valuch that he used to complete every so often at the fire station.
For time, while wearing a weight vest:
1 mile run
¾ mile run
½ mile run
1 mile run
He plans to return to the fire department in a lighter capacity in September, and is working toward a long-time goal to be at the competition for the Fittest on Earth in a slightly different role.
“I’d like to take a few more years to recover my body and I’d like to try to compete and make it to the Masters Division. I was always training for that subconsciously, and now I think it’s the perfect opportunity for me to keep pushing that, because the way I was training saved me,” Valuch stated. “The way I was working day to day on my fitness and my nutrition and my overall body helped me. So now I want to take that and actually see if I can tackle a goal and come at it with a different mindset once I’m back to full steam ahead.”
And while his competitive goals have only solidified, his thoughts on the experience have changed over time.
“In the beginning stages, I didn’t want anybody to know. I didn’t want anybody to associate me with cancer. I’d walk by my reflection in a mirror or a car door, and I’d be like ‘cancer patient, cancer patient, cancer patient.’ And I didn’t want that,” Valuch said. “And now, I take it as a badge of honor, like I’m wearing a Hells Angels cut. It’s just another patch I can put on there. Like, I did this.”
Aside from the inspiration one may draw from Valuch’s battle, it’s also a lesson in listening to your body and advocating for your health, along with drawing on community — a piece of CrossFit that makes the sport so special.
“(I could’ve thought) It’s just a hip injury, nothing big, it’s just the way it is. Just age. (But) this would have been a very different story that you’d be writing,” Valuch said.
“I want to offer myself to anybody that may be going through this…because there are moments that I was sitting there at two in the morning and I didn’t have anybody, I didn’t know who to talk to, I didn’t have an advice line of somebody sitting there that could help me out. So I want to offer to anybody, I mean anybody, can reach me at [email protected]. I just want to be an advocate for a voice of support for people because it is a scary, scary time…you never think it’s going to be you, but when it is you, it’s critically important to have people rally around you that can help you and talk you off the ledge. That’s how I want to give back; I want to give back and promote the sport that saved me.”