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ADAM GERSTEL

Textbooks, calculators, and notepads were strewn across the living room table in Adam Gerstel’s home. The fifteen year-old, Agoura High sophomore was busy studying his favorite subject, math, alongside one of his best friends, Ari Averbach.

I asked Adam the requisite question all adults ask teenagers. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

His response was instant. “I want to be an engineer. I want to design roller coasters."

“Riddler’s Revenge” at Magic Mountain is his favorite. “It’s built by Bollinger & Mabillard,” Adam informed me. “A Swiss company. It’s fast, high, and really smooth.”

Dreams of roller coasters are perhaps appropriate for Adam Gerstel. Afterall, roller coasters are a metaphor for life. There are highs and lows, moments of exhilaration and moments of fear. And you have to hold on tight.

In May of last year, Adam began his own real life roller coaster ride. He noticed a tender lump the week before Memorial Day.

“First I went to a pediatrician,” he explained. “Then he sent us to a specialist, then another specialist.” After this quick succession of doctors and tests, a diagnosis came back. He had a rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare but malignant cancer, most common in adolescents. Adam underwent surgery soon after this diagnosis and began weekly chemotherapy.

Since last summer Adam has been on his own his real life roller coaster ride - one of overcoming fear, and holding tight to life. He misses school each Friday to undergo chemotherapy. His treatments are at UCLA’s Children’s Hospital Oncology ward. “The place is full of kids with cancer - babies to kids my age.”

The treatments make him weak, achy, and nauseous. “I get nauseous now just going there,” he says. “The doctors say that’s common. The body just anticipates it.”

Adam wore a baseball cap to school to hide his thinning hair. He kept up his A-average, took honors classes, and tutored other kids in math. He continued to play saxophone in the school jazz band and regrets only that he missed his band’s tour of New Orleans. But he couldn’t miss his weekly chemotherapy.

It would be simple to end this story and applaud this young man’s courage. But Adam Gerstel didn’t overcome his fear of cancer alone. Certainly his parents were by his side. But perhaps more importantly, he had his friends.

Ari Averbach accompanied his best friend, Adam, to initial meetings with his doctors.

“I remember,” Ari said, “when they said that Adam had cancer and that it was malignant. And that he was going to have chemo.”

“Cancer is the scariest word,” Ari reflected. “We didn’t know how it would affect our lives.”

As Ari spoke about his friend’s trial with cancer, he rarely used the word “I” or “him.” Here was someone who saw everything in terms of “we,” “us,” and “our lives.” Here was a true friend.

Ari also accompanied Adam to several of his chemotherapy sessions.

“He’s sitting there relaxed,” Ari smiled with some embarrassment, “and I’m cringing at the sight of this needle the size of a straw.”

Adam thinks his cancer is in remission. “I don’t think about it too much,” he says. “That makes it better. I just go about whatever I want to do. I lead a normal life.”

I’ve ridden a few roller coasters in my life too. I know you never want to ride them alone. And the ride is a lot less fearsome and certainly more fun when you have a best friend by your side. Just ask Adam and Ari.