Erika Ryerson Crushes Leukemia Then Crushes the CrossFit Open

March 7, 2023 by
Photo courtesy of Erika Ryerson
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For 38-year-old Erika Ryerson, a Leukemia diagnosis in November of 2021 was a grim one. 

T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia was the specific diagnosis and Ryerson said the outlook was a daunting one to face.  

  • “It’s uncommon for my age group and it’s considered a high risk cancer,” said the Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina resident. “It’s becoming more common and more treatable over the last 20 years, but its historical outcomes, especially for adults, are not good.”

Ryerson said her first thought that something might be wrong with her was when she was having a harder time than usual finishing workouts at CrossFit Contrivance in Apex, NC, where she was one of the founding members back in 2018. Eventually, after a number of tests, she got the call and the diagnosis, which required her to head to the hospital for an overnight stay.

  • “Everything happened so fast that I didn’t have much time to be scared,” said Ryerson. “We didn’t even meet our doctor until a week after diagnosis. So it was a scary time waiting to find out what was coming. When we finally met him he gave us some hope that I could be cured.”

On top of everything was a global pandemic which meant Ryerson’s kids couldn’t visit her at all during the first month of her stay, as she only got to see them a couple times outside of the hospital. Ryerson said she had a lot of support, but it still meant a lot of time by herself with her thoughts. 

According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, approximately every three minutes, one person in the US is diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. An estimated combined total of 186,400 people in the US are expected to be diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma this year and new cases of leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma are expected to account for 9.8 percent of the estimated 1,898,160 new cancer cases that will be diagnosed in the US this year.

Ryerson was not deterred however, and set about making sure she stayed physically busy during this tough and grueling period. Out the gate, she was already working on her fitness.  

  • “While in the hospital, I did as much as I could to stay active, which most days was just walking. The nurses told me that laps around the cancer floor equaled one mile, and that one recent patient had walked so much that they walked a whole marathon during their stay. My initial goal was to walk a mile a day. I worked up to about five to six miles a day. By the end of my month, I walked about 130 miles, or five marathons.”

Ryerson also found an extra added push from the CrossFit world, and once again started to accumulate goals to help her with her recovery. Early on during chemotherapy her husband showed her an article about a CrossFitter from Singapore who was competing in the CrossFit Open after her treatment

  • “I used that as motivation and dreamed of being healthy enough to be able to do CrossFit again, let alone compete in the Open someday.”

Come March, Ryerson achieved that goal, completing all three workouts of the 2023 NOBULL CrossFit Open, 16 months after her initial diagnosis 

  • “Now that it’s over I feel so excited to be back at it and be able to do things I couldn’t do for so long. I just recently got the strength to do pull ups again, so I was happy to be able to do all of them in 23.2. One of the side effects of my chemo treatments is numbness and tingling in hands and feet, which has affected my grip strength and balance. I also still have a port in my chest so I was concerned about being able to do heavy cleans without damaging that. So overall, I was just really happy to be back competing alongside my friends in the Open.”

Ryerson has become an inspiration not only to her friends and family but the whole community centered around CrossFit Contrivance. She said at the end of the day, CrossFit ended up helping prepare her for battling Leukemia in the first place. 

  • “When you do Crossfit, you are choosing to do hard things everyday. Being diagnosed with cancer wasn’t my choice, but being a CrossFit athlete helped prepare me to handle the hard parts of cancer. Each stage of my disease brought new challenges and unexpected outcomes. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable I think was a huge advantage for me. It was still incredibly hard, but I had experiences with hard things to draw from.”

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