While battling cancer, 19-year-old Adrian Rangl had one major worry: What if he could never have sex again?
The drugs he took to fight Hodgkin's lymphoma made him horny. He liked to have a good time and wasn't used to sitting for hours in a chair hooked up to an IV or spending his nights alone in a hospital bed.
"I couldn't even watch any porn. There are wires monitoring everything. And of course, I didn't want to get caught," Adrian said.
There was also her. Julia Linder. He had just met her a few weeks ago at a frat party. She was different.She wasn't clingy like most of the girls he knew at UB. She was smart. Really smart. And ambitious. And beautiful.
They had just started to get to know each other, and were both feeling the tingles of new crush nerves when the doctor's report came back.
The pneumonia he had had at the end of the spring semester wasn't from a lack of sleep. He had cancer in his lungs.
He was stage one and had an 86 percent survival rate, according to his doctors.
The name of his cancer was Hodgkin's lymphoma. Close to 9,000 Americans will be diagnosed with it this year, according to the National Cancer Institute. Most of them will be between the ages of 15 and 35.
Eighty-six? Adrian couldn't believe it. It sounded high, but not high enough. What about that other 14 percent? This year, 1,190 people will die from it. Adrian, a business finance major, was determined not be among them.
He not only survived, but also fell in love and got a 4.0 GPA along the way. Next year he will be a first year graduate student in the one and a half year Master's program at UB.
"I feel like after getting through this, I could get through anything," Adrian said. "In the long run the cancer was such a small time in my life."
In June 2010 chemo was his future.
So was celibacy. His doctors told him his sperm might be permanently damaged. They suggested he freeze some before the treatments began. He did.
Could he tell her that? How could he date a girl knowing there wouldn't be much romance, let alone sex for a long time? Maybe not ever.
"I didn't know if she would want to live through it with me," he said.
But he wanted her to want to. But how to tell her?
He couldn't do it in person.
So he sent her a text. It had become their usual form of communication since the semester had ended and she was at home in New Jersey and he had moved back to Queens.
Julia stared at her phone screen. She didn't know what to say. Why was he talking about cancer? Was this a joke? He was built like a bull.
She had just met Adrian, but she liked him immediately. She liked his goofiness and the way he could turn anything into a joke accompanied by his innocent and youthful laughed. She was looking forward to spending the Fall 2010 semester with him.
"I'm not the kind of person who runs away from a problem," said the shy brunette. "I really did want to be there for him even though we just met."
Julia grew up in a small town and thought of herself as a romantic. She always knew that when she grew up she wanted to help people, which is why she chose to be a speech and hearing science major at UB. She hopes to become an audiologist.
She told him she would be there for him. She told herself the romance would have to wait and might never be.
The First Step
Adrian started chemotherapy June 23, 2010 at the White Plains Hospital in White Plains, NY near his family's house in Queens. He was scheduled for 12 treatments, one every two weeks for six months.
On July 7, during Adrian's second chemotherapy treatment, the port doctors had placed in his neck for the continuous input and output medicine got infected.
Adrian developed a rare staph infection called Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). It invaded his bloodstream and caused the 6-foot-3, 230-pound boy to tremble and sweat profusely. After one day, he could no longer get out of bed. He couldn't eat without nausea overwhelming him.
He was 19 and he felt close to death.
He also still thought of Julia.
He wanted to tell her. Yet he also wanted to protect her – and what was left of his pride. He wanted to be with her, but he feared that his condition would scare her away.
He didn't tell her.
"I told my dad goodbye because I was so close to death," Adrian said. "I felt death and all I could think of was how my friends and family will feel."
His father was at his bedside spending the hours holding his hand and talking to him about his favorite basketball team, the Lakers. "[My dad is] what makes me feel confident and who keeps me together mentally," he said.
Joseph Rangl was no stranger to hospitals. His wife and Adrian's mother, had passed away three years earlier after a long struggle with breast cancer. Joseph Rangl knew how to offer quiet support.
After nine days, the MRSA left Adrian's blood stream.
Julia knew she had fallen for Adrian. And yet, she had to wait knowing they might never get to live their story.
"I think that was the scariest part," Julia said. "The thought of losing him, and I had just met him, and I was just getting to know him, that was the scariest thing."
Summer came to an end and Adrian and his father were determined not to let cancer take over everything. Adrian thought he should stay out of school until the cancer was gone, but his father knew better. He wanted Adrian to move forward and return to UB.
UB also meant Julia.
The romance began. A little. They saw each other every day. They shared kisses in the halls, messy wing dinners at Duffs, Greek meals at Family Tree on South campus and hours sitting on the grass by Lake La Salle. They talked about everything – life, schoolwork, and the cancer.
They spent almost every free hour together.
Except Fridays at 10 a.m. That's when Adrian had his other date.
His hands got cold and clammy and his heart beat quickly as he breathed in the antiseptic smell of Roswell Cancer Institute. He sat in his chair for five hours as the chemicals dripped into his system.
Julia never went to those chemo treatments. She knew she wouldn't be able to stay strong if she saw him as a patient in the hospital. She wanted to see him as he was with her – lively, boisterous, and healthy.
Adrian didn't mind, in fact it helped him. He was able to be himself with her and not worry about what she might think.
She was always with him afterwards, offering the emotional support he craved.
"I think not being part of it was the best thing because I understood what he was going through but I didn't have to see it," Julia said.
But Adrian was never alone.
For every chemotherapy treatment, Joseph Rangl took the 45-minute flight from Queens to Buffalo to sit and hold his son's hand.
The Bright Side
The chemo never made Adrian sick. To pass the time, he gave flattering, yet sometimes raunchy nicknames to the nurses. He even called one nurse a "NILF." Quickly the nurses jokingly referred to him as "the troublemaker."
His friendly, easy-going nature was hard to resist, said Loretta Miner, a nurse practitioner at Roswell since 1997.
She attributes his recovery in part to his positive attitude.
Adrian brushes it off.
"I didn't feel sick," Adrian said. "It was like I was on vacation, I was making fun with the nurses, hanging around with everyone, trying to make all kinds of new friends and making people laugh."
While Adrian was on a Roswell date, Julia went to class. Both wanted to maintain the façade of normalcy.
And they both wanted to keep their GPAs high.
Adrian was determined to get a 4.0. Before the chemo he had a 3.8. He didn't want to let the cancer take that from him. He wanted to be even better than before.
"Nobody would have blamed him if he just took a break," said Debbie Grossman, an adjunct professor in marketing whose husband had overcome Hodgkin's lymphoma many years before. "Adrian stuck with school, dealt with his treatment and his classes and earned amazing grades. He's so strong it's amazing."
All's Well That Ends Well?
On Dec. 13, 2010, his doctors told him the cancer was gone.
He was in remission.
He was one of the 8,000 diagnosed who had survived. He was one of the 86 percent.
Julia felt happier than she had ever felt before.
They were now able to be normal.
They went to New York City to see the ball drop on New Year's Eve and shared a midnight kiss in Times Square. It was the beginning of their new life.
After one year, two semesters, and 12 chemo treatments, Adrian officially asked Julia to be his girlfriend on May 30, 2011.
"It took almost a year because we were just happy together living life but I more or less saw us as ‘together' before we were," Adrian said. "I thought to myself I really love this girl. I didn't want to make a mistake and wanted to make sure I would remain happy which I obviously am. I might have thought I was that ‘college boy' who could talk to more than one girl but in the end I realized that's not what I wanted."
Joseph Rangl, who had seen his wife recover and then relapse several times, was the only one not ready to celebrate.
"I felt that there was something in the air, something that said it was coming back," Joseph Rangl said. "Maybe it was because I went through the situation with my wife and I was used hearing you have cancer, now you don't, but now you do. I decided to wait a couple of years before celebrating."
In September, the cancer came back.
The doctors caught it immediately and scheduled Adrian for six days of high-dose chemo sessions. The sessions were to last all day and would be 10 times stronger than his first round.
This time, Julia couldn't stay away.
It wasn't as bad as she had thought. Seeing him interact playfully with the nurses and watching him joke during the sessions made her love him even more.
For him, the sessions were torture – not because of the pain, but because of the sexual frustration.
"The funny part is I had more tendencies and urges during that time than ever before," Adrian said. "I mean the drugs are supposed to make you depressed in that way and they are supposed to make you not get excited for anything like that. Somehow, for me they really worked in the total opposite way."
After the first three-day chemo session, the doctors saw results.
So did Adrian.
He was losing his hair.
Unlike most cancer patients, Adrian didn't lose his hair during chemo the first time around. But because the doses were so much higher this time, his hair started falling out in chunks on the left side of his head.
He tried to cover it up with hats and by brushing it off as not a big deal. Julia knew it was. She knew it was time to shave it all off.
She went with him to the barber, who assumed he was shaving his head for Halloween, which was coming up.
"The second you lose your hair is the moment that it hits you and everyone around you that you are going through cancer," Julia said. "I think it was a really hard moment for him."
At the end of the sessions, Adrian's doctors told him he was cancer free.
They suggested a stem cell transplant.
The 14-day process began Dec. 13. First there were six more days of high dose chemo. That left Adrian with almost no immune system. He had to stay away from people and germs. That meant no Julia.
"The transplant was the worst part," Julia said. "He couldn't go outside or leave the hospital floor. I mean he was such an active person, it was tough for him but he got through it."
It takes two days for the white blood cells to grow back. On the second day, also called "Day Zero" or "being reborn," the transfusion happens. Adrian was hooked up to an IV dripping his blood back into his system.
Then came six days of waiting to recover and waiting for the cells to start reproducing.
"[I thought] I'd never be able to be normal again," Adrian said. "I was thinking ‘will this ever change?' I was so weak. The doctors told me I was normal but I thought this isn't even possible; I couldn't even stand to shower. I felt like an 85-year-old man."
During this time, Julia was worried. She had never seen him so weak. She brought homework and studied with him while trying to pretend everything was going to be OK. The truth was she didn't know if she believed it.
Most stem cell transplant patients spend three months to a year recovering, said Miner. But Adrian was determined to return to UB for his spring semester.
"I've never had anyone who had a transplant and gone back to their daily life so quickly," Miner said. "He really is an amazing person and has done phenomenal."
Happily Ever After
Instead of going out to dinner this Valentine's Day, Adrian went to radiation treatments while Julia went to work.
The cancer is still in their lives, but now rather than fearing it, as they did in the beginning, they work around it and accept it as a part for their lives.
They celebrated Feb. 13 by going out to Joe's Crab Shack for a fun seafood dinner. Julia had been hinting that she wanted a teddy bear on the day of love and Adrian listened.
No chocolates or roses were exchanged, only a four-foot tall teddy bear holding an "I Love You" heart. It was the perfect gift, she said.
The romance between them continues to grow and even though they are young, they both have started to think about the future. The thought that because of the chemo, Adrian may not be able to have children is always in the back of their minds.
"It's scary, because who doesn't want to have children? If that happens, that's what it is," Julia said. "The chemo saved his life and if a side effect of that is no kids then I would rather have him. I would never leave him because of it. I love him too much."