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31st May 2016

Cancer couldn’t keep this skydiving pair down

Steve Woodford and his wife, Maria, were both super-fit skydiving instructors and outdoors adventurers. This is why they were shocked to learn in one terrible year that he had bile duct cancer and she had breast cancer. After a long battle and a little help from medtech they’re back to doing what they love: jumping out of planes.

The pair had just begun one of their typical adventures – a five-week backpacking expedition to explore Mayan ruins in Belize — when Steve’s eyes turned yellow. On the advice of a local doctor, they immediately returned to the States. Back home in Utah, they received bad news: a rare cancer of unknown cause had shut down Steve’s liver. He needed a transplant, and the regional waiting list was one and a half to two years long.

“The head of the transplant unit said, ‘you’re not going to last that long,’” Steve recalls. Fortunately, the doctor had previously worked at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and knew people there. In July, Steve and Maria moved to Jacksonville and settled down to wait.

Steve had been to Florida before – in 1985. He had arrived there in 1985 after sailing a boat from South Africa, young and healthy. Now Steve was fighting with the twice-daily chemotherapy he needed to stay alive until his transplant. The chemo caused painful blisters on his hands and feet, so even walking was painful. The outdoorsman became “a couch potato.”

Before 2014 was out, Maria, who had been Steve’s caretaker through his ordeal, was diagnosed with a breast tumor during a routine check-up. She underwent surgery at Mayo on Christmas Eve. Steve received his liver on January 6 2015.

Today, their cancers are in remission. Maria has returned to skydiving instruction and hiking. “She’s back to doing what she loves,” Steve says. “Life goes on.”

Steve, meanwhile, is pondering new career paths. Because the drug he takes to prevent organ rejection causes extraordinary sensitivity to sunlight, he cannot resume his old job as canyon guide at Zion National Park. Moreover, the prolonged chemotherapy damaged his knee and hip joints, making hiking painful.

These experiences opened his eyes to the suffering of people waiting for donated organs. “I think it should be a federal law that everybody’s a donor unless they don’t want to be,” he says. “So many people die while waiting for organ transplants, but there’s a lot of people who die and are buried with perfectly good organs.”

Even with these new restrictions, Steve’s transplant hasn’t slowed him down much. He has done 130 skydives for pleasure since his transplant, and just returned from a 50th high school reunion in his native South Africa. “I jumped into the rugby games,” he says. “It was great!”