BMX rider Josh Perry was living out his dreams, travelling, competing, and rising up through the professional ranks when he suffered a horrific crash. The doctors ordered an MRI, and what they saw in the scan changed his entire life. In the first episode in a series on traumatic brain injuries with Josh, he recounts his incredible story to Daniel and Tana Amen.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Welcome to the Brain Warrior's Way podcast. I'm Dr. Daniel Amen
Tana Amen: And I'm Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.
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Dr. Daniel Amen: Well, welcome everybody. We have a very special week for you. We have our special guest, Josh Perry who is a professional BMX rider, TBI brain tumor survivor. He recently went to our Atlanta clinic and underwent a full evaluation. He developed his passion for BMX riding in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, what an awesome place, I love teaching there, where he was born and raised. When he was 17, he moved to Greenville, North Carolina to go after his career as a professional BMX athlete and ride with some of the best riders in the world like Ryan Nyquist and Dave Mirra. Josh won his first pro contest and best trick contest, which means he has an amazing cerebellum, in 2009, winning him a brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle. Following the big success, he made his first appearance in the X Games and to continue to compete in the Dew Action Sport's Tour.
At age 21, in April 2010, Josh had surgery in order to remove a brain tumor, taking up the entire left side of his brain. This was a major turning point that put him on track to learn about taking better care of his brain and body and nutrition. In November 2012, Josh had Gamma Knife radiation treatment, actually pioneered by one of our friends, Chris Duma, to treat two new tumors. This was a new eye opener experience for Josh and his health which lead him to look deeper into holistic health and nutrition.
Tana Amen: That's amazing. Welcome Josh, and I have a question. For people who don't know what BMX is, we have a lot of people who, like, different age ranges, it's bike racing. And so you have bikes and motorcycles and all the things as a neuro surgical ICU nurse that we're like, ouch! Did you ever crash ... hard?
Josh Perry: Of course. And first of all, thank you guys so much for your time for having me on. Like I said before it's been five years in the making to be able to have a conversation with the both of you and [crosstalk 00:03:08] and so I'm beyond grateful and yeah, right?
[inaudible 00:03:13] That's something you accept from a very young age, whether you're gonna advance to where I've wanted to go or not. It's if you fall down and that's just a part of life. In bikes, it's a little bit more risk, but I should clarify too, with BMX it's like a bicycle: 20 inch rims, 26 in rims are bigger for mountain bikes. What I compete in is the tricks, like X-Games, like back flips, tricks. I didn't ever race, I found out about racing later on. So there would have been a better development to the fundamentals had I gone that route. I always have to clarify that so I do the tricks, the more crazy, riskful things.
Tana Amen: Right, right. Interesting, so that's already a brain risk. That's a very big risk for a brain and then you developed a tumor. That's pretty scary so tell us about that, what happened?
Josh Perry: Yeah, a little bit. Thankfully I had fallen and hit my head, it was March 2010 and I was trying to do a trick outside of the foam pit. The foam pit is the big, long rectangle full of foam blocks that we build the ramp into, kind of stole that technology from gymnastics and it can save me [inaudible 00:04:17]. So I wanted to do this trick in the next contest, so I've gotta try it at home on the real ramp first and I overcompensated for rotation in the flip of the trick and [inaudible 00:04:28] on my side with my head getting knocked out.
Now, a year prior I had gone to the emergency room, urgent care multiple times with these headaches and migraines that made me lose my vision for a [inaudible 00:04:37] and they denied me every time I asked for a scan. I didn't even care what kind of scan, something. They said "No you're healthy, you're young. You just have headaches. Pretty normal in this country, here's some painkillers come back if you need more." So, moving to March 2010, that crash literally saved my life because it forced them to give me an MRI. I remember driving there just thinking "Oh I hit my head, I got knocked out, it's just an evaluation of the brain post concussion." Didn't think anything of it, just how long till I could ride again.
I was sitting there waiting for results to come back, and I'll never forget it, the doctor walks in and says "We have your report. There's no swelling, there's no bleeding, so take some time off but that's checked out. But, there's something in your brain that shouldn't be there." And I remember laughing out loud and asking him "What do you mean there's something in my brain? [crosstalk 00:05:26] how could there be anything in there? I've got a skull protecting it." He followed up with "There's a large mass taking over a portion outside of your brain, we don't know if it's benign or cancerous. Would you know if you want a shot at preserving your life you need to have surgery immediately and you may still not wake up and you'll probably never ride your bike again."
And I'm by myself, I had just turned 21 the November prior and I'm just thinking "what". I just heard cancer, never going to ride your bike again, you may die and everything just started shutting down. That's the only way I can explain it so there's no [inaudible 00:05:59]. You don't ever expect that at any age, let alone when you're 21, two years into living your dream and then you're just getting [inaudible 00:06:07] report. You have cancer, you have a tumor and whether it's benign or not.
Dr. Daniel Amen: So you, actually were how old when you were diagnosed with cancer?
Tana Amen: Mine was not nearly as... They didn't tell me I was going to die but I remember hearing the word cancer. My experience was a little different, I refused to hear it. It was so surreal that I was like "What are you talking about? I'm the healthiest I've ever been." I couldn't take it in and I just thought they were insane. It's such a surreal experience but to hear you're going to die, I didn't even hear I was going to die and I went into a deep depression. It was such a weird, shutting down process, just like you said. It's like everything just begins to collapse on itself.
I think at that age you think you're invincible and when that sudden realization that you're not only, not invincible but you're actually fairly fragile everything could shut down. It's such a bizarre realization. We just don't expect that at that age, you just don't expect it. But then in your case to hear that you could die is, I think, I can't even imagine. Especially for a young guy who's riding bikes and racing, you were just at the prime.
Dr. Daniel Amen: And for those of you listening to this google "Josh Perry BMX" and you'll see the amazing tricks that he could do.
Tana Amen: So you had gotten all of this attention for being, just really at the top of your game and now to hear you're not going to ride again had to be pretty crazy.
Josh Perry: Yeah, like I said it wasn't anything I... It never went through my head on the way there sitting and waiting like "what's going to happen?" Of course fear set in, anxiety, stress, worry all these things and then the victim mentality. I literally was thinking "why is this happening to me?" What did I do to deserve this? Am I such a bad person that this is gonna happen now? It was a pretty quick transition from diagnosis to surgeries, about a week and a half - two weeks, where I went to Duke University and saw Dr. Adam Friedman.
And three things that helped transition me from fear to fuel, no I [inaudible 00:08:11] like how long, when can I get back on my bike, what do I do. It was my mom's story of battling colon cancer, she is alive and well today but I saw her go through that and she did a lot of that for me when I first left home so I could pursue BMX. The BMX community that I had created a name for myself worldwide let me know like "Hey, we got your back. We're thinking of you. You got this so stay strong." Whether they knew me or not they'd just heard of me. And then learning Lance Armstrong's story.
In BMX you see a trick done for the first time and everyone else starts doing it. You see it then you can do it. So seeing Lance Armstrong, another cyclist wheeling something around for the most part, a little differently than my style of riding but to me he went through [inaudible 00:08:51] testicular cancer. To me, that's [inaudible 00:08:52] going through a third of this and then he develops cancer. He did this, came back to the level of riding he did, no matter what people's opinion is of how he did that. To go to that level after going through something like that is unfathomable. And I'm just going through the brain tumor out of all the things that he went through.
Tana Amen: So you had a mentor to watch, in essence? We think that's really powerful.
Dr. Daniel Amen: His mother went through cancer and Lance Armstrong and then the support of your community is really important.
Tana Amen: We talk about biology, psychology, your social circle and your spiritual circle and you definitely had the psychology and the social circle down, and the biology even because you were young and you were fit. You were eating, from what I understand, you decided to start eating really healthy and pay attention to what you were doing. I don't know what the spiritual circle was but you had those three down which is really important. And that's what we talk about, those four circles, they're like four wheels on a car right? So if one of those wheels is flat it's a little harder to recover, it's harder to drive the car.
Josh Perry: That sounds funny because I know you guys are really big about community and that's one of the biggest things I learned about [inaudible 00:10:11] in general is all these communities, they have that. They're not isolated, they're not living in a box with no light. They're enjoying themselves and it's contagious, that energy. It was after diagnosis I got into nutrition, but it's funny because ever since I was younger and my parents and my family were always like "You've gotta work hard for what you want, anything is possible if you just put the work in." BMX, and sports in general teaching me that there's a failure. You fall down, audit what happened, reverse engineer the path to success and try again. So now my biggest thing, my biggest passion is mindset. It's not any of the things I've gone through [inaudible 00:10:48], brain tumors or nutrition. It's literally the psychology and I have a lot of the great works of mentors that I heard about in my search for mentors, you guys are some of them that I've been able to connect with, which is amazing but that's the first thing I talk about now.
Whether someone is like hey man, how do I get this trick or how do I change up my diet, let's figure out why you want to do that. What's the purpose behind it? Let's figure out your psychology, your subconscious beliefs. It's funny seeing, I'm 30 now, selecting the last ten years even, how big of a factor that was in the success I had and I didn't really know it. It was embedded in me subconsciously and now I'm very aware of it and trying to learn more and share more of that because I think that's the biggest piece is that mindset.
Dr. Daniel Amen: Did you go back to riding after the brain surgery, the first one?
Josh Perry: Five weeks later
Dr. Daniel Amen: Five weeks later (laughter). And what did the neurosurgeon say about that?
Josh Perry: The Doctor said "Yeah it's about four weeks so that the skull will fuse back together" and I was like whoa, I thought I was out a year for best case scenario. I didn't do much research, I was just, let's get in. And he was like "Let's take another week, we'll just see how it goes."
So week four, I went in, the four titanium screws holding the skull back in place. Everything is settled well, fused back. So let's take another week just to make sure you're good. Helmet, pads, back on the ramps week five.
Two months later I was competing again.
Tana Amen: That's crazy. He's young and he's passionate. I want to touch on something you said because it's been a huge thing in my life, the falling. You said you fall down, you get back up. So I practice martial arts and it was so powerful for me -
Dr. Daniel Amen: (laughter)
Tana Amen: Why are you laughing at me? (laughter). As always he's laughing at me, he has this thing about laughing at me.
Dr. Daniel Amen: I'm thinking everybody is insane now. Because people don't get, brain surgery is a traumatic brain injury. Somebody is messing with the physical functioning of your brain. I'm looking at your scans and I can actually see where the tumor was, where they took it out. And for him to green light you back on your bike [crosstalk 00:12:53] risky if you watch the videos. How many times before the first surgery do you think you fell and hit your head?
Josh Perry: So this is when Dr. Ali and I were going over my report list I was like there's not enough space to talk about this. Up until that point, that I can vividly remember was four from the time I started riding, about 12 or 13 till that point that I know I got knocked out. For sure. One of them I was 16 and I actually had [inaudible 00:13:27] from it. But now that I've learned a lot more about concussions and how you don't need to get knocked out to get a concussion or an MRI can still clear you to be concussion free. And I've hit my head quite a bit to where I saw the stars or I was just like that hurt and I had a headache for a bit. Coming to the last point I'd say, comfortably I would say seven times I got hit in the head, whether I got knocked out or I hit it hard. And that was a big wake up call was the brain tumor supposed to learn about brain cancer.
Dr. Daniel Amen: When we come back, we are going to talk about more of the impact of traumatic brain injuries. Stay with us.
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