WALLINGFORD — Twelve years ago, Brian Watts noticed his breathing was getting worse and he was breaking out in rashes that would keep him awake throughout the night. He saw a number of specialists, including a dermatologist and his regular doctor, but they were unable to diagnose him.
“They were sort of spit-balling — seeing what it could be,” the 42-year-old said. “No one knew what it was.”
It wasn’t until a lymph node under his arm swelled up that doctors would be able to give him a diagnosis. In 2005, Watts, a North Haven resident, was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“We relaxed at that point,” Watts said. “We finally have a name for this thing after four years. If we have a name, we can fight it.”
With Stage IV Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the cancer is found outside the individual’s lymph nodes throughout one or more organs; or can be found outside the lymph nodes of one organ and has spread to far away areas; or it can be found in the lung, liver or bone marrow, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Watts said he immediately began chemotherapy, which went on for a year and a half. He received another scan that still found traces of cancer in his chest. He would ultimately go through thoracic surgery to remove his thymus, which the cancer had wrapped itself around. Once his thymus was removed, another scan revealed he was clear of any cancer.
But the aggressive chemotherapy treatments caused different symptoms, such as Lhermitte’s sign and Raynaud’s disease. A person with Lhermitte’s sign experiences a sensation that shoots down from their neck to their legs caused by bending the head forward, Watts said. Raynaud’s disease narrows the blood vessels in the extremities, reducing the blood flow in areas such as the fingers and toes.
“His body was decimated from all the stuff he’d gone through in the past years. He had no strength, no cardiovascular (endurance) and his brain wasn’t working,” said his wife, Barbara Watts. “He had foggy thoughts and it was tough to keep things straight.”
Watching her husband fight through the symptoms was difficult, she said, and she worried he could develop another type of cancer.
“It was hard to watch and I didn’t know what to do to help him,” she said. “... One of the biggest side effects is another cancer — leukemia. It’s a secondary cancer that can happen anytime.”
To encourage Watts to focus on the positives, his wife would ask him to join her for walks around the neighborhood. But he found it frustrating because he would become quickly winded, she said. The two decided to join a 24-hour gym, walking on the treadmill. Barbara Watts said her husband began questioning the effectiveness of walking on the treadmill and she asked him to join her for a CrossFit workout in New Haven. CrossFit is a program that includes short workouts done at high intensity.
“It took a little while for CrossFit to click with me — to understand that this was more than a workout,” Watts said. “I was pushing myself a little harder and my symptoms started going away.”
Watts fought through post-chemotherapy symptoms for four years. After doing workouts for a year in New Haven, the Lhermitte’s and Raynaud’s was gone.
“I’m so proud of how far he’s come. For so long, he was so discouraged from feeling sick and not knowing what was wrong to getting the cancer diagnosis,” Barbara Watts said. “We’re all so excited to see how far he’s come.”
Realizing how it had changed his life and made him healthier, Watts became a coach at New Haven CrossFit. In October, Watts opened CrossFit Zenith in Wallingford, 2 Toelles Road Unit 14. He hopes to encourage people to become active and to ultimately lead a healthier lifestyle.
“I didn’t come into this as a golden, Adonis athlete. I came from where a lot of these people are coming from,” Watts said. “I know what it’s like being the last person to finish a workout or to have people cheering you on when you just want to be in the corner alone finishing a workout.”