Why I ride and how surviving cancer is easier on a bike

I love cycling

“Cyclers see considerable more of this beautiful world than any other class of citizens. A good bicycle, well applied, will cure most ills this flesh is heir to.” ~ Dr. K. K. Doty

Neophyte. Rookie. Novice. Beginner. Green Horn. These are all terms you could use to describe me and my current place in the cycling community. But despite the fact that I am the newcomer with the shaky handlebars, and inconsistent pedal stroke, I am having the time of my life. In fact, I have never felt so alive.

I’m sure that it a lot to do with recently overcoming invasive breast cancer and wrapping up 16 months of chemotherapy. I literally have a new lease on life and I’m so amped to live this one to the fullest.

For the record, I have no problem admitting I have no real place keeping company with the stallion-like riders I’ve been chasing. But so far anyway, my ego hasn’t gotten the better of me, and Im well satisfied with my view from the rear. Every moment I spend in the saddle is a moment I’m not in a hospital. Every time I feel my heart rate rise I smile knowing it’s because I am physically exerting myself and not because I’m having a chemo-induced panic attack. I don’t care if I ever win a bike race, because I’ve already beat the biggest competition I’ll ever have to face. Sure it would be nice, but right now I’m just happy to be here.

So many things change after a cancer diagnosis. But one of the things you realize right away, is that your life will forever be divided into two distinct chapters: Life Before Cancer and Life After Cancer. I’ve heard over and over again that many cancer survivors go onto change their lives radically when they’ve overcome the disease. Some survivors totally rework their priorities; quit day jobs to spend all their time with their families, jump out of planes, climb crazy mountains, leave their relationships, get divorced, or move to a foreign country.

Now I was pretty happy with my life before I got diagnosed, so I’m not looking to make any radical changes – BUT I will say this, the fear that used to hold me back from doing things that intimidated me is gone. Having looked at death in the face and come out the other side, there’s not a lot I’m afraid of anymore. I have however found myself wanting to make up for lost time, to push my body harder than ever before, to test my limits, to live bigger, louder, and stronger. I have a voracious appetite and throw myself into things with a gusto I think I lacked in the time before cancer. One of the ways I’ve been doing this has been on my bike, 4-6 mornings a week, since the beginning of June.

I’ve caught the cycling bug the way I see some of my students catch the yoga bug… I think about it constantly. I read about riding. I dream about riding. I feel agitated and incomplete on my rest days. Yoga and I have been married a long time. We will continue our mostly monogamous and steadfast relationship until death do us part. However, cycling has showed up this year out of no where, and all of a sudden I have a most unexpected and tantalizing lover on the side. Admittedly, I’m a little obsessed, as one is when a new passion is ignited. But if you have to be obsessed about something, I figure this is a pretty healthy obsession.

Nantucket Velo

The back story to the cycling piece is this: I lived in Chicago from 2002 until 2007. During that time I was madly in love with a man whom I would ultimately marry just 8 weeks before he would die of a rare and shockingly brutal kind of lung cancer. Ironically during our time together Aaron constantly pressured me to get on a road bike. He loved it and rode all over Chicago on a wickedly fast Bianchi. Even the thought of riding though the city streets on a tiny, delicate looking frame with spaghetti thin wheels terrified me. And I refused.  He eventually bought be a Marin Muirwoods hybrid bike, which was basically a road bike but had a steal mountain-bike like frame and wheels that were slightly wider than those on his. It was a manipulative gift, but a beautiful one, and over time, I caved to the guilt he laid on in heavy doses.

It was right around the time I finally started tentatively riding the bike, that we found out Aaron had terminal cancer. He was gone just 2 months later. Everything after that got really blurry for me. I was 27, I was devastated. I was a widow. I put the bike down and didn’t ride it again until I moved home to Nantucket in 2007, and even then just looking at the Marin brought up such pain and loss, I barely rode it.

In another ironic twist, I got hooked on spinning just a few months before my own cancer diagnosis. I’d often take the 5:30am spin class at the NC+F studio, and then head over to the Green for a post-workout coffee. It was Jason Bridges, who started suggesting I take all my spinning energy and put it on the road. No way, I’d think to myself. That shit is scary.

But wouldn’t you know that in December 2012, just 3 months before my life would be turned up-side-down by a needle biopsy, a beautiful titanium LeMond road bike arrived. A gift from my partner – who knew how much I was enjoying spinning, and just couldn’t help but pick up where Aaron had left off.

The gift simultaneously thrilled and freaked me out. Luckily for me, I wouldn’t have to test drive my new steed for quite a while. My needle biopsy revealed an aggressive triple-positive ductal carcinoma, and subsequent MRIs showed that the cancer had spread throughout 3/4th of my entire right breast. My breast surgeon was saying things like “we’ll do everything we can to save your life”… I had an oncologist asking me things like did I want to freeze my eggs in case we had to remove my ovaries and uterus. Someone stuck a huge fucking needle full of radioactive dye into both my breasts and told me it would feel like a bee sting (clearly she had never had the procedure herself). The bike starred tauntingly at me from our enclosed porch while I threw up into a plastic bowl and kept swapping out ice packs on my itchy, hot, bald scalp.

I made a vow to myself, that if I beat cancer, I would get on that bike and RIDE it. I’m not sure if I was bargaining with God or with Aaron, but I also vowed that if I came out the other side, I would even race it. So in November of 2013, when I had gotten over the worst part of my treatment (Taxol, A/C and the double mastectomy) I realized that I was going to have to make good on my promises.

“The best rides are the ones where you bite off much more than you can chew, and live through it.” ~ Doug Bradbury

My partner and I had thrown around the idea of forming an Iron Teams Relay team, an annual race here on Nantucket that has a number of different legs, including a bike leg, but it had seemed like theoretical banter at the time. Once it started to look more like a reality, I wasn’t sure what was more frightening, cancer or riding in the Iron Teams.

I took the LeMond out for the first time on the 15th of November. I had no hair, no energy, certainly no cycling apparel, and felt like a big bald idiot as I awkwardly tried shifting up and down on the completely foreign apparatus. It felt very unstable, and scary to be clipped into something that moved in a forward trajectory, but part of me loved it right away.

November 15th, 2013: First time on a road bike.

A little post ride yoga selfie. November 15th, 2013: First time on a road bike.

Somehow between endless infusions and visits to Boston to see my oncologist, the winter flew by, and with spring arrived cycling season. My fear of road biking was dissipated by a couple of dear friends who took the time to explain the rules of the road, and in May took me out a few times at a pace I could handle. After a year and half of treatments, my energy level was at an all time low. My lungs were sluggish. My legs felt like they were moving through quick sand and my heart rate skyrocketed almost as soon as I left my house. The first time I did the Polpis-Sconset Loop with triathlete, friend and yoga student, Eddie Roberts, we went around 12mph.

Paint probably dries faster.

Even so, it didn’t matter. I was hooked. While riding I felt tingly from head to toe. Any speed I went was still faster than no speed at all, and faster still then the snails pace which I had averaged walking anxiously through the hallways of the Mass General Cancer ward. Riding made my entire body buzz. Riding made me feel alive in ways I’m not sure I’ve ever felt. And most importantly, it made returning to Life After Cancer seem like a tangible reality.

“Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride.” ~ Eddy Merckx

By June, I started riding 2-3 times a week: the most cardiovascular training I’ve ever done in my entire life. As far as training goes, it’s not much. But I had to start building a base if I was going to ride the bike leg of the Iron Teams Relay as promised. The goal was not win, the goal was simply to finish. I wanted my 4 year old son Griffin to see me speed down the road on my black and yellow LeMond.  I wanted him to see that the days of watching his mommy lay on the couch, too weak to play were over.


Iron Teams Relay: June 25th, 2014

Proudly showing off my “Kick Cancer” kit at the Iron Teams Relay: June 25th, 2014

Iron Teams Relay (photo by Shawn Monaco)

With Griffin at the end of the bike leg. Photo by Shawn Monaco

By the 16th of July, which was my last of 31 chemotherapy infusions, I had started to ride with the 6am Nantucket Velo group fairly regularly. I didn’t and still don’t often hold onto the group for long, but was happy just to be welcomed into the fold. From time to time I would be offered technical tips, or motivational aphorisms. New friends started pushing me to hold on through the “hills” of Tom Nevers, or get on somebody’s back wheel to practice drafting. I watched in absolute AMAZEMENT as my speed average increased from 12mph in May to 19mph in July.

Now some people have told me that stats and data aren’t important, and that cycling is more about how your body feels than the speed you ride or the miles you put in. But cancer patients are obsessed with numbers: blood counts and temperatures dictate whether or not an infusion can be administered. The number of days are counted  before we have to go back into the hospital and start the hell that is chemotherapy all over again. We count the number of days we throw up and the number of times we have to go in for intravenous hydration. I even counted the number of episodes I could watch of Scandal in a row before nodding out while doped up on morphine. So for me keeping track of my speed and milage has been something that I get great pleasure from. Every piece of data reminds me how alive I am instead of how sick I am (or was). Of course I pay attention to how my body feels, that’s an integral part of being a yogi, but I don’t think anything’s wrong with tracking progress. In fact, as a cancer survivor, I feel liberated by these kinds of numbers not confined by them.

On July 24th I competed in the Nantucket Hero Triathlon, on a team with Simon Shurey, who’s mother too has been battling breast cancer. We named our team FCTIAH aka Fuck Cancer There is Always Hope. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so nervous in all my life, but it was awesome. It was so much fun being on a team with Simon, who has always been so encouraging and positive whenever I see him, and my friend Laura, who had been on my Iron Teams Relay team.

In no small part because of this blog, many people who were either competing or spectating knew my cancer story and it felt like hundreds of people were rooting for me. Race Director, Jamie Raney, was over the top supportive of me and my decision to participate, and even publicly acknowledged my fight during the pre-event meeting. The race was on a Sunday. I had completed my last chemo on that Wednesday, just 4 days earlier. On that 31st and final infusion I felt like I had finally crossed the finish line of a very, very long and traumatic race. As I sprinted in at the end of Triathlon bike leg, the victory of crossing that finish line truly settled in.



Team FCTIAH at the Nantucket Hero Tri

Team FCTIAH at the Nantucket Hero Tri

Tomorrow I am racing in the Tour de Loop, a local Nantucket bike race (my first ever) that’s been around for a number of years. I have no illusions of grander or expectations to ride any faster than my personal best. There are a few riders I know I can match cadence with, and I’ll be happy for their companionship. Yes, I am the newbie. I am the one trying her damnedest to conquer her spazzy front wheel. I am the one who, just this morning, gripped her brakes dangerously when  assaulted by a piece of road kill and incited the ire of one of the velo’s senior riders (so sorry). But I’m also the happiest person on the road. That I know for sure.

Thank you Edward Roberts, Emily Molden, Jake Allegrini, Jason Bridges, Mike Allen, Simon Shurey, Mary Ellen Pender, Criss Troast, Jeff Shapiro, Michael Alpert, Seth Hatch, Shawn Monaco and the rest of the men and women who’ve allowed me to tag along this summer.



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