Getting rid of bone cancer at age 23 was only the point of departure on a two-year journey for Jacob Farley. He walked slowly, painfully; sometimes five steps a day, sometimes none at all. At times, he hobbled on crutches; at times, he was shackled to his parents’ couch, unable to move.
Along the way, Farley encountered seven or eight surgeries–he doesn’t remember exactly. But then there was the hole in his shin that never healed. There were the bone scrubs, and the rearrangement of his calf muscle to the front of his leg, paired with skin grafts from his thigh. And after every procedure, he undertook the arduous process of learning how to walk again.
Farley had been studying exercise science when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma the day after Christmas of 2012. He continued his studies through the removal of the tumor, but it eventually proved too difficult to read and write in the haze of medications.
“All these surgeries were just to get rid of infections,” he says. “It didn’t even have anything to do with cancer at this point. There were some really dark moments. I remember one day, I was lying on the couch, and my family was watching a baseball game. I just turned my head and faced my couch. I didn’t want to talk anymore. I didn’t want to do anything.” He made his way to the kitchen and sat alone, staring into nothing. He’d reached his breaking point.
But then he began reading a journal his mom had kept over the past year: “I thought to myself, ‘Look at everything that’s already passed. I don’t know when, or what it’s going to look like, but it will all be over.’ There was always a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Farley is parlaying his experience into the development of an exercise rehab program tailored to amputees and those with spinal cord injuries. The six-week program, unofficially known as the Bridge Program, will focus on transitioning from therapy to real life through exercise.
February 2014 brought the relief of amputation. A month later, Farley was back in the gym, his crutches always nearby as he taught himself how to navigate cardio machines with one leg and swing kettle bells. Later still, for a last time he re-learned how to walk: five steps with his prosthesis, then ten, and eventually, box jumps.
“When we made the decision to do the amputation, I was like, ‘Okay, what will I be able to do without a leg?’ For something like cancer therapy, it’s one step at a time, but it’s also looking forward to that next step. You need to have the mindset of, ‘What could the next step be? How can I make that the next best step?’”
For Farley, it was a return to school to complete his Masters. Three months after surgery, he began an internship at Greenville Health System’s LIFE Center for academic credit that became a paid training gig. Now full-time, he does one-on-one and group training, as well as oncology rehab.
“If I’d had a choice—all right, will I have two legs or one?—I would’ve picked [having two legs],” he says. “But things have opened up for me since I lost a leg. I’m able to relate to a lot more people, whether I’m training or walking down the street.”
FULL SPEED AHEAD // Jacob Farley was diagnosed with osteosarcoma the day after Christmas of 2012, and had his left leg amputated in February 2014. Today, he is a physical trainer at GHS’s LIFE Center and works with other amputees and cancer survivors.
A few months ago, Farley brought one wheelchair-bound amputee into the LIFE Center and took him around the gym. As he explained how to mount various machines, he popped off his prosthesis in the middle of the gym to demonstrate. “It was a busy time of day; there were a lot of people in there. I just wanted to show him, who cares if people look at you? It wasn’t the exercise part that was keeping him out,” he says. “It’s way more than making people sweat. There’s the whole mental and emotional side of things. It’s being able to understand people’s fears. I don’t think I could’ve convinced him to come in if I was two-legged Jacob.”
One-legged Jacob, on the other hand, has fought the demons of inevitability and lived the daily triumph of taking another step. “I think humans are pretty resilient creatures,” he says, speaking broadly. But there is perhaps no better living, breathing, walking, box- jumping testament to human fortitude than he.