Losing a leg to cancer as a teenager, Hugh Freund competed at the top of his sport with other disabled sailors in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Buoyed by his own determination and the lifesaving cancer treatment he received at the Massachusetts General Hospital, paralympic sailor Hugh Freund competed with his team in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this September to win the silver medal.

From Left: Hugh Freund, Brand Kendell and Rick Doerr train to compete in the Paralympic Sailing Games in Rio. where they took the silver medal.
From Left: Hugh Freund, Brad Kendell and Rick Doerr train to compete in the three-person keelboat competition in the Paralympic Games in Rio where they took the silver medal.

Hugh Freund, 28, who lost his lower leg to cancer as a teenager, raced for the US Sailing Team in the Paralympic Games in September. He and two other disabled athletes competed as a team in the Three-Person Keelboat (Sonar) event.

The Paralympic Games is an international event for athletes with physical disabilities held immediately following the Olympic Games.

Hugh’s doctors at the Mass General Cancer Center removed his right leg when he was 19 to save him from sarcoma, a deadly and aggressive form of cancer. They treated his cancer with drugs that have left him cancer-free for nearly nine years.

“MGH gave my life back to me,” says Hugh, who, as a freshman at Roger Williams University, was diagnosed with an aggressive sarcoma tumor in his ankle bone. “The quality of care was very high at Mass General. Everyone in every unit was attentive and eager to participate in the healing process.”

A Life-Changing Decision

In addition to chemotherapy, which stopped the spread of the cancer, Hugh’s doctors gave him a difficult choice that only he could make, says Edwin Choy, MD, Hugh’s oncologist and a sarcoma specialist.

Hugh had to choose whether to have his leg amputated above the ankle and replaced with a prosthetic leg, or to have only the tumor removed and the leg reconstructed.

The large, invasive tumor in his ankle had to be surgically removed. Hugh had to choose whether to have his leg amputated above the ankle and replaced with a prosthetic leg, or to have only the tumor removed and the leg reconstructed.

A reconstructed leg, Hugh learned, would be a weaker leg. He would not be able to run, jump or play sports.

Grace Under Pressure

After much consideration, Hugh decided to have his lower leg amputated. Doctors replaced it with a strong prosthetic leg that would allow him to participate in the sports he loves, like biking, skiing and, ultimately, Paralympic sailing.

How did he find the courage to make such a decision? Hugh modeled his response to cancer after an uncle who, when diagnosed with stage 4 renal cancer, endured his treatment with grace and a positive attitude. “He made sure everyone around him experienced as much joy in his presence as possible,” he recalls.

And so it was with Hugh.

“I was struck by the amount of grace he exhibited under pressure,” recalls Dr. Choy, who runs clinical trials at MGH. Those trials have contributed to FDA approval for three separate drugs to treat different types of sarcoma. “He had a very dangerous type of bone cancer,” Dr. Choy says. “He managed his treatments courageously. I would say he was unfazed. He is probably one of the most amazing people you meet in life.”

Hugh Freund, paralympic sailor
Hugh Freund

Paralympic Sailing for Gold

Hugh, now free of cancer, says he has “never once” regretted his decision to amputate.

Instead, he has immersed himself in the world of “adaptive sports,” also known as “disabled sports.” He does so not just as a competitor, but as a teacher and trainer for other people with disabilities.

While training on the 23-foot Sonar boat his team sailed in the Paralympic Games, Hugh says each member of his team has a role to play.

Rick Doerr of Clifton, N.J., is the most severely disabled teammate, with paralyzed legs and lower torso. He is also the most experienced sailor, having competed in the Paralympic Games in 2008. Rick serves as skipper and moves about the boat by grasping a specially installed transfer bar and sliding on a bench. Brad Kendell of Clearwater, Fla. whose two legs were amputated, has a powerful upper body. He is the mainsheet trimmer, controlling the line to the largest sail on the boat, the mainsail.

Hugh, having learned to maintain his balance and to avoid tangling his prosthetic leg in the rigging, can move about the boat most freely. He helps balance the boat by shifting from side to side and can duck under the boom when they need a better view of challenges ahead.

Edwin Choy, MD
Edwin Choy, MD

“We work well as a team both on and off the water,” Hugh says.

MGH Care Team Cheers from Ashore

Dr. Choy says Hugh’s medical team at Mass General has been following his Paralympic sailing progress with great excitement over the years. They were elated this spring when Hugh’s team won the world championship in the Netherlands and qualified to represent the United States in the 2016 Paralympic Games. The team narrowly missed qualifying in 2012.

While Paralympic sailing in a world-class competition is an unusual accomplishment for a young man with one leg, Dr. Choy says many of his patients display similar positive determination and courage.

“Part of what makes my job especially rewarding is that I see this every day in my patients,” Dr. Choy says. “Hugh is an extraordinary example.”

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