Luke Soderling says the lessons he learned from facing the challenges of thyroid cancer helped him to survive 60 days in 6 different harsh locations in South America, on the Discovery Channel show, The Wheel. Soderling says he took on the challenge to encourage the cancer community that survivors can stay active and healthy, and to be a role model for his 4 young boys.
Soderling, who works for his family’s plumbing business in northern Minnesota, was 32 years old when he was diagnosed with cancer. In the spring of 2013, while he was visiting his parents, his mother noticed a lump on his neck and asked him about it. He hadn’t even realized it was there. He went to the doctor to get the lump checked out, and underwent tests including a biopsy and an ultrasound. The tests found a 2 ½ inch tumor on his thyroid gland, sitting against the edge of his vocal chords. It had spread to his parathyroids (tiny glands behind the thyroid) and lymph nodes.
Thyroid cancer is commonly diagnosed at a younger age than most other adult cancers. The death rate for thyroid cancer is very low compared with most other cancers.
“The doctor was very helpful. He assured me it was the best type of cancer to get because it’s very treatable. He tried to be very encouraging and he told me, ‘This isn’t the end of you,’” said Soderling. “But it didn’t matter what people told me about statistics and likelihood of survival. It was devastating. I had 3 of my 4 boys at the time. I tucked them in at night not sure what the future was going to hold. Would I be there for them? Would I be able to provide for them? It was really hard to deal with.”
Soderling had surgery to remove his thyroid gland, followed by radioactive iodine therapy. The thyroid gland makes a hormone the body needs. Therefore, people who have it removed must take a pill every day to replace that hormone. For a few weeks before the radioactive iodine treatment, Soderling was instructed to stop taking the hormone pills and to stay on a very strict iodine-free diet. He couldn’t eat salt or foods that contained salt, processed foods, fish, seafood, or milk. After radioactive iodine treatment, the body gives off radiation for a few days. Because of this, Soderling had to isolate himself from his family and other people for 3 days to make sure they were not exposed to any radiation.
His treatment caused fatigue, which is a common side effect, and a complete but temporary loss of taste, which is a rare one. The loss of taste lasted for about a month. Follow-up tests showed the treatment was working, and in February 2014, doctors told Soderling he was cancer-free. He’s had checkups every 6 months since.
Since his diagnosis, Soderling has tried to help other people facing cancer. He’s given motivational talks to educational, residential, and business groups. And he’s raised money for cancer charities.
In 2016, Soderling applied to be a participant on The Wheel, a television survival show on the Discovery Channel. After a series of physical and psychological evaluations, IQ tests, and interviews, he was chosen to be one of 6 people who try to survive in 6 different harsh environments for a total of 60 days. Soderling was one of 2 people who made it through all 60 days without activating the emergency beacon that allowed participants to quit the challenge and summon rescue.
“The reason I took on this challenge was to be a good example to my boys that you work hard and never quit and also to be able to encourage the cancer community,” said Soderling. “No matter how hard, when you set your mind and you set your goal, you never, ever give up. Don’t give up, don’t ever, ever give up.”
Soderling had no previous survivalist training or experience, however, he had fished, hunted, and worked outside while growing up in northern Minnesota. He put those skills to use during the show, catching his own food and building his own shelters to survive. In the Amazon, the wetlands, the bush plains, the mountains, the tundra, and finally a deserted island, Soderling caught and ate caimans (which are like alligators), fish, including piranhas, snails, seaweed, and even larvae. He used a machete, one of his few tools, to build a log cabin in the mountains. He built a rock shelter in the tundra and a lean-to on the island, to cook and store firewood. He avoided jaguars and giant spiders, but endured attacks from hundreds of tiny ticks.
When day 60 finally came, Soderling was taken by boat back to civilization, and flown back home. He says he had lost all of his body fat, and was just “skin and bones.” His first “real” meal in 60 days was a hamburger at the airport. When he finally reached the driveway of his house, Soderling had to wait while a TV crew equipped his house and family with microphones so they could film the homecoming. He says it was the longest 20 minutes of his life. But then: “I saw my boys and my wife and I was so happy.”
Soderling says he got through the survival challenge the same way he got through cancer treatment –determination, and taking it one day at a time. “So many trials in our life are overwhelming. We can’t see the end result, so we have to focus on the little victories,” he said.
He says he also learned what really matters in his life. “When I didn’t have any of the comforts that I used to have around me, I realized what things were most important. I realized I didn’t miss my phone or social media. I regretted every moment I spent on my phone that I could have spent with my family,” said Soderling. “I missed my boys, my wife, and spending time with family and friends watching football – the Minnesota Vikings. The challenge took place during football season.”
Today Soderling is looking forward to his 5-year cancer-free anniversary, next year. And he’s hoping to expand his opportunities for motivational speaking so he can inspire more people in the cancer community with his story.