By Lorraine Wilde
Whether through his work, play, or volunteerism, 29-year-old Bellingham resident, Ryan Shupe, has found ways to connect with and support fellow cancer survivors and amputees across the country. “I do it because I’m passionate about whatever I choose to do. I like to challenge myself, not only for me, but for the benefit of others as well.”
At the age of 10, Ryan told his mother about a mysterious pain in his right foot. Doctors began with a cast but soon realized the problem was much more serious. Ryan was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma—an aggressive cancer of the muscles that attach to bones. They soon discovered that his cancer had metastasized to his lungs. Ryan’s foot was quickly amputated and he underwent radiation therapy. “For a lot of people, cancer is like a crucible—a test. As an amputee, reaching out to cancer survivors and people with disabilities has become a big part of my life.”
In 1997, Ryan’s condition was severe enough for him to be granted a wish by the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Ryan spent a day with his hero, comedian Robin Williams, on the set of the film, Flubber. “We hung out. He was completely genuine and interested—inspiring.” Williams’ death earlier this year was particularly meaningful for Ryan. “It brought up for me exactly how much every individual has their own story and challenges. I feel for his family, for losing him so unexpectedly. He will continue to inspire people with his legacy.”
Ryan and I first met a few years ago, following in the footsteps of his hero, in an improvisational acting class. It helped more than just his acting. “What I learned there about spontaneity and connection has helped me in my work and relating to the kids at camp.”
Ryan first attended Camp Journey at Ross Point—a summer camp in Idaho for children in cancer treatment—fresh out of radiation therapy and still on crutches after his amputation. Now, he returns each year as a volunteer cabin counselor and camp-wide problem-solver. “I feel fortunate that kids are drawn to me. There is something about the potential that I can help kids explore, sparking that imagination—not giving them ideas—but helping them find their creativity, and then letting them realize it.”
Ryan’s work is also close to his heart. Over the past three years, he has become a Digital Modification Trainer and aided in research and development at Cascade DAFO, a Bellingham-based pediatric medical orthoses manufacturer. DAFO stands for Dynamic Ankle Foot Orthotic—a customized, flexible brace designed to help children with neuromuscular disabilities.
“In college, I studied pre-physical therapy—biology and physiology. It’s not enough to diagnose like an orthotist, but I am learning so much online about computer programming and applying that to my work.” Ryan uses a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) program to customize the fit of each brace to order as requested by orthotists. “Everything I do at work is unique. You can’t hire someone with this experience from just anywhere. DAFO is investing in me. We’re creating my skill set together.” The orthotics Ryan helps create are shipped to children across the country and internationally.
Ryan’s amputee status hasn’t held him back when it comes to recreation either. “I love living in Bellingham. There’s so much to do.” With only a month to train, Ryan completed the five-mile running leg of the Bellingham Traverse for the DAFO team this year. “When they asked, I thought, sure, that sounds like a good challenge.”
Ryan also completed the kayak leg of this year’s Ski to Sea race for the DAFO team. “I will do it again. I’d like to keep a tempo of staying active.” Recently, Ryan began playing kayak polo with friends near Marine Park. “I think that I’m one of the more fortunate among cancer survivors and amputees because of what I can do. Having this happen when I was young gave me a great advantage—a resilience.”
Ryan’s cancer has been in remission for nearly 20 years, but he is still deeply connected to his fellow survivors. “Life is definitely an adventure. I’ve tried to use what I learned in improv class, to ‘say yes’ to the things that have made me feel like I’m making good use of my life.”