South Freeport sailor sets example in cancer fight

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FREEPORT — After being diagnosed with bone cancer at age 18, Hugh Freund, of South Freeport, faced giving up his love of 10 years – sailing. 

Eleven years later, on June 15, Freund was honored at Mass General Hospital Cancer Center’s 10th annual The One Hundred gala in Boston, recognizing 100 individuals and groups of advocates, caregivers, researchers, philanthropists, and volunteers who are committed to the fight against cancer. 

During his first semester at Roger Williams University in 2006, Freund began feeling pain in his right leg. 

“I thought it was a sprained ankle,” Freund said. “So I just took some Advil, stretched, relaxed, stopped running, and ignored it.” However, after a day of downhill skiing, Freund experienced severe pain and swelling in the ankle, which led him to visit his primary care physician. 

After X-rays and a biopsy, Freund was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that most often occurs in long bones that make up the arms and legs. He began treatment at Mass General Cancer Center in late January 2007.

In addition to about 10 months of chemotherapy, Freund had a decision to make: he could either have invasive surgery to remove the tumor and reconstruct his leg, or have his leg amputated at the ankle. Learning that a reconstructed leg would remain weak, preventing him from ever running and playing sports again, Freund chose amputation. 

“(Amputation) would keep my quality of life really high,” Freund said. “Whereas (if I had reconstructive surgery), I wouldn’t have been able to run, bike, ski, hike, (or) even walk. So it was a pretty easy decision for me.”

Freund said that had it not been for chemotherapy after his amputation, the recovery time would’ve only been about four to six weeks. 

“It sounds so much worse than it really is. It didn’t matter that my healing was slow because when I was on chemo, I wasn’t walking around anyway,” Freund said. 

Once he was finished with chemotherapy, however, Freund was quick to get back on his feet. He began using his first prosthetic in mid-July, was walking with a cane by mid-August, and was walking on his own by mid-September. 

“I was back skiing by the winter (of 2008) so it was about 12 months to get back in shape,” he said.

Freund tried to start sailing again for his team at Roger Williams, but found it difficult with a prosthetic leg. 

“It was not the right place for me to be,” Freund said. “I hopped in the boat and it was just terrible. I couldn’t move well.”

That was when his head coach, Amanda Callahan, suggested Freund meet with the head coach of the U.S. Paralympic Sailing Team, Becky Alison. He did, just one year after finishing treatment. 

Still a full-time student, Freund faced many challenges, including taking weeks off at a time to travel to Europe for sailing. Luckily, the dean of Roger William’s School of Architecture and his professors supported his goals.  

Freund graduated with a degree in architecture in the spring of 2011 after losing the Olympic trials in London to another U.S. team in January.

“Once the London Olympics were over we decided ‘Let’s try again,'” Freund said. 

He and his team went on to win a gold medal at the 2016 Para World Championship in the Netherlands and a silver medal in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. 

Paralympic sailing was removed from the paralympic program for Tokyo 2020, so Freund is taking a break from sailing competitively at the paralympic level.

“There are plenty of other sailing competitions, so I’ll do something, but it won’t be quite so full on as a paralympic campaign,” Freund said. “That was fun, but after seven years I was pretty happy to finish it … We went out with a gold in the World Championship and a silver in the games, so that’s about as much as you could ask for.”

But it wasn’t just his medals and athletic ability that earned him a spot on the list of this year’s 100 nominees. Freund also helps out at the Warrior Sailing Program, which teaches sailing as a method of rehabilitation for wounded, ill, or injured service members, and volunteers with Courageous Sailing, whose mission is to make sailing accessible to Boston youth, the public, and people with physical and intellectual disabilities.

“For me, I think it was actually other people’s battles that I watched before I was even sick that helped me frame my own perspective on what it would be like to be extremely sick and how (I) would handle (myself),” Freund said. “I think my own battle was more of an execution of a playbook that I had already written ahead of time based on other people’s experiences.”

Freund looks forward to continuing his involvement in the cancer community by sharing his story and advocating for those battling through their own.

“I’ve shared with several of the folks at MGH that I (would love) to be a patient-to-patient advocate,” he said. “For me, one of the strongest positive influences (in my experience) was just to talk to someone that has gone through it.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 183 or Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

South Freeport’s Hugh Freund, center, with teammates Rick Doerr, left, and Brad Kendell celebrate their silver medal at the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio. 

Hugh Freund, 29, of South Freeport, was recognized for his fight against cancer at Mass General Hospital Cancer Center’s 10th annual The One Hundred gala in Boston.