Fear is just a thought; thoughts can be changed: An interview with Josh Perry
Josh Perry’s journey has had as many ups and downs as a BMX bicycle. From reaching his dreams and riding with his childhood heroes around the world, to brain tumor diagnoses and back again–his story proves that it’s not about the cards you’re dealt; it’s how you play them. Allow me to introduce you to Josh Perry and his wild and inspiring ride.
Could you tell me about yourself? How did you get into biking? When did you know it could be more than just a hobby?
So, I was born and raised in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And like most kids on Cape Cod, you get into T-ball—little league is really big where I’m from—and then that totally progressed to playing basketball, rollerblading and skateboarding—and that led me to the skate parks. Later on, I learned that BMX bikes ride the same ramp. I saw some older kids and I saw X Games on TV and was just really interested in it. I asked for a BMX bike for Christmas one year and happened to get it. I started slowly playing school sports less and riding more. And then just solely focused on riding. I found myself getting into the local beginner and amateur contests for BMX. Then, that progressed to regionals and that progressed to the top 10 amateur riders in the country. It started to take over my life at that point and I became really passionate about it. It became an outlet for me in all aspects of life. At the same time, as I got into 15, 16, 17 years old, I was landscaping for a friend of the family who owned his own landscaping business. I went to a Technical High School to be trained for landscaping to take over the business. I got an ultimatum from my boss one day about taking too many days off of work to go ride at these contests, and I had to pick between work and BMX; that’s when I went all in on the BMX dream.
What is something that people looking from the outside in might not know about BMX?
I guess they typically think it’s just a bunch of kids or younger adults that are crazy—which, to a degree, we kind of all are! But there’s a lot of dedication and goal setting within action sports—and determination because we deal with failure and pain on a regular basis. The first couple years, you’re learning and you’re falling a lot—and you’re getting back up and trying again. So, I think one thing that people miss is how hard working action sports athletes are—it’s all self motivated— there’s no coach, there’s no team. It’s just you have a goal, you have a vision and you get up and you try.
Could you walk my readers through your diagnosis and subsequent journey with your brain tumors?
So, I moved to Greenville, North Carolina when I was about 17—I think it was 2007–and in 2009 I rode X-Games and had already been on the pro tour. I was living the dream! I had some sponsors and was traveling internationally to do demos and compete; and it was in March 2010 where I crashed and hit my head and got a concussion and had to go get an MRI. Now, leading up to that point, I had been going in and out of the emergency room complaining of these migraines; vision loss, vomiting—all these classic brain tumor symptoms—and I kept getting denied scans and turned away to go home with pain pill prescriptions. I was told that, “You’re young. You’re healthy. Your blood work checks out, paperwork checks out—you just have headaches—a lot of people do. Just take these to help manage it.”
I was very ignorant at the time and just believed the doctors. I was like, “They’re the doctor, they know best.” And so now, moving forward to March 2010 and my crash, that crash saved my life because now that concussion REQUIRED an MRI to look at my brain and make sure there was no swelling or bleeding. That’s when they accidentally found the brain tumor taking up a good portion of the left side of my brain, and wrapped around a main artery and optic nerve. It was that moment where I was told that, “You know, Josh, you’ll, probably never ride again—you’ll be lucky to walk. And if so—it’s going to take you a good bit.” But then also, “If you want to save your life, you only have one choice: and that’s to have surgery.” And you know, at that point I’m sitting alone, I’m 21, I’m by myself at the urgent care office just going in for a concussion report, and I never thought that that would be the outcome. And so that first diagnosis and those words that that doctor said to me were really crushing. I felt super alone and devastated because I just recently became a professional athlete in the sport of BMX. I’m living that dream and am friends with my idols—and it’s about to be taken away from me. And instantly the victim mentality set in of “Why me? Am I a bad person? What could I have done to cause this?” And so that was the first diagnosis. And throughout the following weeks—it was about three weeks later—I got rushed into surgery. But through those weeks, it was a transition of taking that fear and that worry and victim mentality, and using my mom’s story of battling colon cancer to be great today; and then people like Lance Armstrong; he’s a cycling athlete—a little different than what we do—but to learn about his story and combining that with friends and family. Also, the BMX community around the world was reaching out to share love and support. I noticed this shift from fear and like, “Oh man, life’s over.” Because that’s initially what I thought when I was diagnosed. I thought my life was done. You never really think you’re going to be told you have a brain tumor—let alone that young. And as the week went by, I started to shift into focusing on my riding and visualizing what I wanted in my future, and using it for fuel and motivation to know I’ll be okay. Like, if these people can do it, you know, my mom got past it; Lance Armstrong did it multiple times and on a much more severe level than where I was at—I’ll be okay. And then, of course, all the love and support helped. And so I went in for the surgery April 2010, and it was supposed to be four hours—it took six because of the artery and the optic nerve complications—but successfully it was removed and I woke up for the first time in a while without pain. I could move all my limbs— hear, see, smell, taste—all that stuff after signing papers saying I could wake up paralyzed; could not wake up, or wake up and not be able to have certain senses; the whole list of complications. It was probably one of the most amazing days of my life waking up and seeing my brother, my mom and dad, and my grandparents and just being—alive.
So, that was the first diagnosis and surgery. And then moving forward two years later, a routine MRI showed two new growths on that same side of the brain, and my surgeon said it was the complications of the artery and optic nerve. I was actually in India and I had two days left to my trip—I was doing BMX demos with a group of friends when I found out. So he said, finish up your trip, come home, and we’ll talk— but I want you to look into radiation since surgery is out of the question. I didn’t really like the sound of radiation and did a lot of googling and found a technology called Gamma Knife radio treatment. It had a lot of great success; outpatient procedure—very low in side effects. And so I chose that. And I went through with that in November 2012 in Boston at Tufts Medical Center. And for about four years those two tumors were shrinking, and now they’ve become stable so we just monitor them every year to two years—but they’ve been fine.
Now, the first and second diagnosis pushed me into an area of interest with how to prevent the tumors from coming back and how to take care of my health. I watched a documentary when I was recovering from the original surgery that put me on this path to making changes in my diet and lifestyle, and then the second diagnosis and going through Gamma Knife increased that interest and turned it into a passion. I came across a school called the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. If you live in New York you can go to the school, but it’s offered as a one year online module based course to become a certified Holistic Health Coach. I really wanted to learn more; I wanted an organized manner rather than jumping all over the internet to endless amounts of black holes and I ultimately wanted to be able to help people with what I was learning at the same time. So I went through that course and it taught me a lot of conflicting theories—they wanted to teach you how to think rather than what to think; and it was really, really great. I came across a doctor called Dr. David Perlmutter; read his book Grain Brain and then came across a gentleman named Mark Sisson—you know, the Primal Blueprint guy—and the two of them were all about low carb/high fat. Perlmutter focused specifically in regards to the brain, and that’s where my passion was. Mark Sisson talked about body composition and energy and neurological effects as well—mostly focused on athletes. So, I started experimenting; lowering my carb intake and of course, processed foods and sugar and alcohol and really getting into a higher fat diet. As the years went by I was learning a little bit about this thing called ketogenic, but it wasn’t until about 2016 where I started having fat coffees toward the end of the year. And then, you know, learning about Dave Asprey’s work; and the ketogenic diet became more prominent in what I was reading in Perlmutter and Mark Sisson’s newer books. So, I just started messing with things and implementing fasting—even lowering my carbs to where I was like 50 grams or less and raised my fat intake.
Then February 2017, a routine MRI follow-up showed two new masses on the opposite side of my brain—so totalling four currently. They think I have a neurological or genetic disorder that creates brain and spinal cord tumors. But you know, great in my eyes is I only have the brain tumors—which is odd to say. But if I had spinal cord tumors I probably wouldn’t be able to ride or workout like I do, so I’m pretty full of gratitude for that aspect. [The ketogenic diet] has become a really big interest and passion of mine to where I implemented it, and then a year later another follow-up showed no progression of the tumors. Long story short, I live with 4 tumors today now after three different diagnoses, and I follow a ketogenic diet as a way to combat that and enhance other areas of my life.
The refreshing thing about Josh’s health journey is that it is completely devoid of the superficial.
My journey hasn’t been about body composition. And I struggled for a minute in thinking I didn’t have value to share my story with others because I was never super overweight. I, of course improved my body composition now that I’ve implemented this way of eating the last few years, but my focus was always on the brain. So even yesterday when I gave my talk at Dr. Westman’s summit, one of the things I mentioned is my mission of sharing to the younger generation: don’t judge a book by its cover—as corny as that is! Because if you look at me, you would never think that I had anything wrong with me health-wise, but I live with four brain tumors.
That’s what put me on this path. It’s not about weight, it’s not about body composition. It wasn’t even really about performance, it was about saving my life, protecting my brain and healing my brain. A majority of people are finding out about the ketogenic diet because it’s become fad status now, because it does have significant benefits and effects. And if you do it properly you can sustain it, and then create longevity out of it. But ultimately, you know, I look at it as a very, very important tool to help the brain. One of my clients who’s 23: two years of brain surgeries for a tumor he has and different meds for controlling his seizures—no progress. We work together for five weeks—he went from three to five seizures A DAY to now he’s had one in the last two to three weeks. That’s amazing, and that’s just from changing his diet to a ketogenic diet. And, you know, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a medical professional, but I’m using my experiences and studying all these wonderful doctors, scientists and researchers to help people in that aspect. It’s all geared around the brain. And then because of that the by products are: improved energy, sleep, recovery, body composition, cravings are gone and you’re not hungry. You get a better peace of mind and less stress and more time for your day. And it’s really amazing because it’s not about vanity, it’s about health—and specifically brain health. And once you get that as a priority, the other stuff just clicks so easily.
I know that you’re in this period of transition where you’re moving into speaking, and health coaching. I mean, for you, it’s got to be this amazing time in your life where you’re switching over to helping others because of all the information that you do have.
So, when I started the 2016 series season, I was coming off an ACL surgery and I had about four months of rehab. Then, I had about a month and a half of actual riding and training before the contest season. So my goal was to make top 12 at every event. I ended up 10th overall. Now that was ending my 2016 series. Then, moving into the next year, I had a sponsor that was going to take care of all my travel and hotels, but then they were going to pay me a salary the following year and continue sending me around the world to compete and represent their brand. Then two things happened; one: my bike sponsor at the time let me go because of financial issues on their end and that was a huge obstacle—but also the greatest thing that happened to me because it put me on this path. Then, leading into 2017, I have this plan with the nutrition sponsor— paid salary /travel budget and I had just done so well last season; then they changed ownership and dropped everything—my contact after five years got let go. It was devastating. Like, “Okay, well, what do I do now?” Because I can’t afford to fly myself around the world to compete. And, you know, the big prize purse isn’t large enough to compensate. So now moving forward, I’m in my late 20s and I’m just like, “Man, I don’t know—this doesn’t seem right. I don’t know what to do. Who am I if I don’t compete? But I can’t compete.” I started doing a lot of PR; like podcasts, and going to these events, and meeting people and doing these interviews and blog articles for some pretty major media coverage that was just like a dream come true. Ultimately, I was helping people by just sharing and showing up and having conversations like this. And so then I was like, I need to do something with this. And that’s when I decided to start my business at the end of the year with the health coaching.
We all have a choice in life with positive or negative events. We can pick how we move forward. It was like, these are two things that could cripple me, but maybe it’s a good thing because it’s showing me where my purpose is, and where I need to put my energy. So today, I have a bunch of private clients, I’m working on creating an online video module course to help people that has a weekly group coaching call for extra support. And then, motivational speaking. It seems to be lining up the way it’s supposed to. I was kind of stubborn at the beginning—trying to live the same way I was living before just because it’s what I enjoyed. But it was also just what I knew. So, those two negative events weren’t really negative.
All these things in my life have given me clarity about what I want to do with my life when I didn’t have any clarity before. I didn’t know really know who I was, although we’re always learning that— it’s always changing. I didn’t have any idea where I wanted to go beyond BMX, and I’ll be 30 this year and I think I’m more fulfilled on this path now; and BMX is still part of it. It’s interesting, because if I wanted to compete and if I had the opportunity to where I had a sponsor helping out and and it was beneficial—I could. I still train, I still ride at the same level, just not as often because I’m pursuing other things now. But I think I’m more fulfilled on this path of speaking and coaching.
To fill you in on my three core beliefs: the first one is: perspective and gratitude are essential for life. I use my story of—everything we’ve just talked about leading up to right now—being grateful to be alive, and understanding it’s okay to want more in your life. But nine times out of ten, it’s not going to happen unless you’re grateful for the things you have now, because without gratitude, you can’t expect the universe or God or whatever you believe in to provide more of what you’re not appreciating now. And so, that’s a game changer. And then number two is “ health is internal.” It’s not numbers on a scale or a piece of paper. It’s not physical, it’s not how you look, it’s really what’s happening inside. And I learned that the hard way. And third, “Our reality is a manifestation of our choices. We all have the choice of how to react, how to think, how to move forward —or not. That’s why I love sharing and doing things like this and getting into speaking; I never thought it’d be a thing. It’s such a rad feeling knowing that something you’ve experienced and learned and shared helped someone in one way or another, whether it’s on a large scale or small scale. That feeling can’t be bought. So, that’s a huge reason why I’m so focused on doing what I do.
My last question is, is there anything else that’s on your heart that you’d like to say? Something that you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask you?
There’s four things I represent or try to represent as much as I can; and the first one’s medical imaging, because had I not fallen and hit my head that day, I wouldn’t have got an MRI—even though I paid for health care and asked for any kind of imaging of the brain—I was denied it. So the first thing I represent is medical imaging. And if you think you have a problem and your doctor’s not trying to work with you, they’re trying to say they know better —go to another doctor. Get that MRI. So, like I said, if I hadn’t hit my head that day, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t be here today. So—medical imaging.
And then number two is Gamma Knife. And I want to make that more well known as a treatment option for inoperable brain tumors. If I had got the MRI when I originally asked for one, the tumor may have not as been as large as it was when I was diagnosed. And therefore I could have possibly used Gamma Knife—we’ll never know because I never had the scan— but that’s something I really want people to be aware of.
And then of course, number three is the ketogenic diet. It has a lot of anti inflammatory effects but also has a lot of metabolic effects on the brain and being able to help support it.
The fourth thing is the Athlete Recovery Fund, which is a nonprofit 501C3 that is designed to help action sports professional athletes with medical care. So, when I got diagnosed originally in 2010, they flew my parents out, they put them in a hotel, and then they helped me with any kind of medical care that I needed after my health insurance stopped kicking in. We’re working together now on a project called Brainy BMX, which is a BMX show that tours around and does BMX demos, but the twist on it is we’re also doing fun workshops with cooking and yoga and meditation and fitness. I don’t know the time frame yet. We’re working on that, but like a two to three, four hour fun day of sharing information, having activities, kicking it off with a BMX demo and music. But the goal of it is to raise funds for direct brain tumor, brain injury, and brain cancer patients so they can apply to get help with anything they need. That’s change that I want to create.
Your humble correspondent can’t wait to see what Josh Perry is up to next!
Check out the athlete recovery fund here:
Interested in having Josh as a health coach? Go here!