On December 23, 2020, Rife Hilgartner was told he had three years to live.
Stage 4 colon cancer had metastasized to his liver and lungs.
“Three years?! … F@*# You! You mean 30!”
That’s what Rife thought to himself, defiantly, as he sat motionless in his car in Boulder, Colorado, just moments after hearing the prognosis from an oncologist he just met.
In that instant, he recalls, the battle was on.
“You just can’t accept it,” he said. “You have to accept you’re sick, that something happened, and you have to accept that you have to deal with it, but you don’t have to accept that it will take you out.”
At 50-years-old, Hilgartner, a two-time XTERRA National Champion triathlete, had just finished a four-day mountain bike stage race in Colorado when he was diagnosed.
“I’ve always been fit,” said Hilgartner, who played lacrosse in high school at the Boys Latin School of Maryland, and later at Whittier College in California.
After college, he returned to his childhood hometown in Baltimore looking for the next adventure where he ran into an old friend who was enjoying the active, outdoors lifestyle in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you come to Colorado with me, you’d love it,” explained Hilgartner. “So I did! I put some clothes in a bag, jumped in the car, and off we went.”
For the next 26 years Hilgartner made a home, and a career, in the mountains. He coached lacrosse, taught snowboarding, led spin classes, worked at high-end restaurants, and ultimately became a certified personal trainer for cyclists and triathletes.
“The fitness world always enticed me, and if I wasn’t working to help others get physically and mentally stronger, I would be out snowboarding and climbing peaks myself. I would go all day long to get where I wanted to go.”
There’s an old saying, a mantra of sorts, that Rife shares with his friend and training buddy, Josiah Middaugh - If you’re always ready, you don’t have to get ready.
“I lived by that,” he said.
"If you’re always ready, you don’t have to get ready."
So, how is it that the fittest 50-year-old you’ll ever meet gets cancer?
“You can’t answer it. The doctors can’t answer it. They don’t know. I can tell you one thing, it’s not because I ate too much ice cream.”
The biggest challenge, Rife explained, is keeping your mind right.
“I’d be driving down the street and the dark side would creep in, and I’d be thinking to myself, ‘I eat good, I train well, what happened? WHY ME!?’”
Then he’d think of his daughters, Annie, and Quinn, and as quickly as he could, he’d hit the reset button on his thoughts.
“I’d have to tell myself, no-no-no, you’re not going there with the why-me, self-pity stuff,” he said. “It’s not easy, but you have to do your best to turn it around. For me, I’d think about walking my girls down the aisle, paying for their wedding, and I’d just believe that is what’s going to happen.”
Rife’s family doctor diagnosed the symptom, discoloration in the stool, and ordered a colonoscopy. The gastroenterologist spotted the tumor. The oncologist ordered a CT scan. The results … were not good.
“They looked at me like, holy shit, he’s a dead man walking,” said Hilgartner. “But I didn’t look at it like that. It didn’t freak me out because I had figured something was wrong, and I didn’t think it was necessarily that bad, but I looked at him like, what does this mean, how long do I have? I was scared, but more so, I was annoyed.”
Specialists at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York confirmed the prognosis of the oncologist in Boulder, and the treatment plan took root.
“The consensus was to start aggressive chemotherapy right away,” explained Hilgartner, who was in a position to “handle” aggressive treatment because of his high-level of fitness.
“I didn’t know how, but I was going to do it, and I was going to cross the finish line."
“I left the doctor’s office that day pretty upset thinking about having only three years to live. I firmly believe, however, that was the most pivotal moment in my whole cancer journey. It was at that point I began to heal, because my mind was not accepting what was going on, and that had huge ramifications on health.”
Rife started an aggressive 12-week block of chemotherapy three weeks later.
“I’d take a three-hour infusion, then pills for two weeks, and then take a week off. It was like nothing I have ever experienced. The first two rounds were horrible, then it got better in the third round, and in the fourth round my energy lifted up really high, almost back to normal.”
At that point, Rife began to train and set some goals.
“That’s when I decided I was going to Alabama to race at XTERRA Oak Mountain,” he said. “I didn’t know how, but I was going to do it, and I was going to cross the finish line. Things like that helped me stay motivated.”
Another CT scan at the end of April 2021 showed his tumor had receded, and on May 8, he completed the one-mile swim, 20-mile mountain bike, and 6-mile trail run at XTERRA Oak Mountain in under four hours. Things were looking up, but his journey was just getting started.
Support networks are instrumental in the cancer journey, and Rife’s support team started with Stephanie Testa, an Ayurvedic science practitioner.
“Once I was diagnosed, Stephanie started me on immunity pastes, herbs, and teas to help with immunity boosting, and really finding balance in life. With her help, I was able to find some peace in my diagnosis,” he said.
Rife also connected with a long-time close friend, Scott Thorn, who owns a CBD company whose scientists and doctors formulated capsules and tinctures to focus on Rife’s unique diagnosis.
“Chemo, Ayurveda, CBD – those were my cancer fighting tools, but the most important one was my mindset,” said Hilgartner. “I remember riding through the countryside on my bike when I’d talk to the cancer inside my body. I’d breathe out my nose and literally tell it that its camping trip is over, ‘You can’t stay here anymore, it’s time to go.”
And it did. A CT scan in August 2021 revealed Rife’s colon was clear, and his lungs were good.
“I felt strong, healthy, and motivated,” he said. “I was thriving.”
Out on a mountain bike ride at the end of September 2021, Rife bunny-hopped a baby rock, landed on some wet roots, his tire went sideways, and his knee popped out.
He had to have his quad tendon repaired, re-attached to the patella with sutures. It took three surgeries to get it done.
Simultaneously, after three more rounds of chemotherapy treatment at The John Hopkins Hospital in his hometown of Baltimore, Rife underwent another CT scan. It showed a thickening at the original tumor spot in his colon, and the chief of colorectal surgery wanted it removed.
“So in January 2022, my knee still swollen from surgery, I had a laparoscopy to remove 10 inches of my large intestine. My body was like, WTF! It was brutal. It took nine weeks to return to more normalcy with bowel movements. I couldn’t go anywhere."
Now mid-July, 2022, Rife’s battle rages on, and instead of being with his XTERRA family at the USA Championship in Colorado, he’s starting another three rounds of chemotherapy.
“Beginning of round eight, seems like I’ve been here before, seems almost comfortable in a weird way,” he says in a video message to his racing friends. “I beat it before. I’m going to beat it again. I’m training strong, lifting weights, working a bunch, building my foundation and looking to uplift and inspire people.”
In the midst of his fight against cancer, Rife’s personal finances are also under severe strain thanks to a relentless onslaught of medical bills.
All this and still, Rife has an unwavering appreciation for life, and a new mission focused on helping others.
“I started the Thrive Cancer Foundation as a passion project to help others in similar situations. I’ve always helped people be their best through personal training, but now I want to help in a different way.” said Hilgartner. “I want to be the support team for those who need it most. I want to inspire people to live healthier, stronger, better lives, and for cancer patients or anyone facing challenges, help them beat that challenge and rise above.”
"You have to accept that you have to deal with it, but you don’t have to accept that it will take you out.”
The Thrive Cancer Foundation came together through the support of his network of friends – from financial advisors to oncologists – at a time when Rife was at his worst.
“Cancer is hard on the person, and it’s hard on their support team. I thought about the foundation while I was going through my most miserable of times. I truly feel that God didn’t give me cancer to take me out, he gave it to me to do something more profound – and this is it.”
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