My Pink Ribbon Gets a New Set of Wheels: Inspirational Bike Ride to Battle Breast Cancer
If you had asked what I was thinking in February when I signed up for the Young Survival Coalition's Tour de Pink East Coast, a three-day, 200-mile bike ride from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., I don't know what I would tell you.
All I knew at the time was that I was a young breast cancer survivor, the Young Survival Coalition meant so much to me, and I wanted to do something amazing and challenging to support a cause I believe in.
Since my breast cancer diagnosis in April 2011, I've found great joy and meaning in jumping into new experiences and adventures. Tour de Pink seemed a little scary and very overwhelming, but I had decided, since my breast cancer, that I don't sit on the sidelines. To me, life is too short to waste on "wishing" I would do something or on "waiting" for the perfect moment.
Planning and having my wedding in the midst of my breast cancer journey taught me that life events seldom happen how and when we plan them to. There are no "perfect moments" in life to do things. This was my chance to really challenge myself, and in the process, support other women just like me.
I hadn't ridden a bike more than a few times since I was a little girl. And the bike I owned, which I had just bought a year earlier, was a seven-speed, low-seated heavy bike with thick tires. Actually, riding a bike made me nervous and I wasn't particularly fond of the sport.
But something inside of me told me I had to do this ride. Not as a cyclist but as a survivor.
Just like I can't imagine my life today without it being touched by breast cancer, I can't imagine my life having never done Tour de Pink.
In the seven months that elapsed between the day I signed up and the weekend of the ride, which was Sept. 27 through 29, I put everything I had into the ride. I fundraised. Friends, family and even people I had never met before supported me, helping me to raise $5,558. Every single cent of that goes to the Young Survival Coalition, a non-profit organization oriented to support and educate about breast cancer in young women.
And I began my training right away. As a breast cancer survivor I received a Liv/Giant road bike, which I would use for the ride, as well as a helmet, Shimano clip-in cycling cleats and pedals, and much more. Each donation was a partnership between the respective companies and the YSC to ensure survivors had everything they needed to ride in Tour de Pink.
Between the end of February and the end of September I immersed myself in cycling. I read about it, dreamed about it, signed up for rides with the State College Cycling Club, and reached out through friends to find people to ride and train with. My husband Sean, who supported my decision since the day I signed up, trained with me.
We bought cycling jerseys and shorts, cycling glasses, bike tools and pouches and water bottles. That winter I did my first 30-mile rides through the hills of Centre County, and as summer approached I was riding more and more. In the month leading up to Tour de Pink I was riding five days a week: 20 miles before work some days, 30 miles after.
I would wake up at 5 a.m. just to get on the bike. My weekends were dedicated to longer rides: 50 or 60 miles on Saturday, 40 on Sunday. Tired and sore, I'd ride. I'd ride with new "boo-boos" on my knees from learning how to use the clip-in cleats. Up and down hills, through traffic, along country roads.
I'd push myself. More than I ever pushed myself before. I rode by myself, with Sean and with friends. I rode at night and in the morning. I challenged myself with tough, hilly routes. My life became cycling. Stretching, energy bars, coconut water. Pushing, resting, pushing, resting.
Never before had I put my heart, body and soul into anything the way I did for preparing for Tour de Pink. And all the while I was raising money, reaching out to fellow riders through social media, and panicking. Panicking. Would I be ready for this? Am I training enough? Am I training too much? How am I going to ride 200 miles in three days? I am not a cyclist.
Then Tour de Pink weekend came. And my life changed.
200 miles, 200 new friends.
The Young Survival Coalition hosts Tour de Pink rides every year throughout the country, including in the West Coast and Atlanta, Ga. About 200 people participate in each ride, as individuals or on a team.
According to its website, the YSC's Tour de Pink is the most powerful community fighting breast cancer in young women.
"YSC Tour de Pink is your chance to raise funds to ensure no woman diagnosed under 40 faces breast cancer alone. Whether you ride one mile or hundreds, from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to the shores of the Pacific or in between, there's a place for you in our circle," the website states.
The money Tour de Pink raises helps the YSC provide resources, connection and outreach so women feel "supported, empowered and hopeful," according to the website. "With every mile you ride, you help YSC expand our circle of support to the thousands of women who need us."
Tour de Pink riders range in ability. Some have been cycling for many years, while others are new riders. Some are women undergoing treatment for breast cancer. Some riders have a sister, mother, wife or friend battling breast cancer. Many lost a loved one to breast cancer and ride in her honor. Some have never ridden before and some have ridden every Tour de Pink since it started.
The East Coast ride, which is in its tenth year, consists of a more than 200-mile route from King of Prussia to Washington, D.C. The day 1 route, which is 65 miles, takes riders from King of Prussia to Lancaster. Day 2 begins in Lancaster, passes through York and Gettysburg, and ends in Frederick, MD. Riders can cycle the whole way, which is 90 miles, or they can choose a 60-mile route. And day 3, the final day, is about 57 miles from Frederick into Yards Park in Washington, D.C., passing the White House, Washington Monument and other sights.
The weekend is not competitive; it's about riders doing their best and giving their all. It's about spirit. Riders can choose to ride any amount they want, whether it's one mile or 200. They can stop any time they want. There are rest stops, which are clearly marked on the route and on riders' cue sheets, about every 20 miles that provide mechanical assistance, food, water and bathrooms.
Volunteers cheer riders on as they get to each stop, and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. (Some stops even had Panera Bread sandwiches!) There's lots of picture-taking and hugging at each stop. Riders can refill their water bottles or take an energy gel. There are also other treats, such as Oreos and M&Ms. (I would always snag a bag of M&Ms for later in the hotel room).
Support And Gear, or SAG, vehicles follow along should a rider need help between stops, whether it's a flat tire, they don't feel well or are ready to stop for the day. There are professional cyclists who ride with the riders, as well as marshals on mopeds who help control traffic and keep riders safe. The whole ride is supported.
Pink Tour de Pink arrows guide the route. Friends and family can follow along in cars and meet riders at rest stops and cheering stations. Riders are provided with, through the YSC, hotel stays and meals throughout the entire three days, including breakfasts and dinners. Additionally, all of the snacks and bike support is provided at no cost to the riders.
Each night at the hotel there is a hearty dinner buffet, survivor speakers (I was honored to speak Friday night) and speeches and other talks from YSC staff and caregivers. Riders also have the opportunity to get a massage and see a chiropractor. The evenings are all about camaraderie. Each night we'd talk about that day's ride, what the hardest or best parts were, and how we felt about taking on the challenge again the next day. Our bodies were tired but we didn't want to rest. The adrenaline and endorphins were too high.
Throughout the three days we rode through eerie Gettysburg National Park and passed by horses and buggies on the sunny and rolling hills in Amish Country. We received cheers from standers-by in the little towns and cities we passed through. (There was even a horse with a dyed pink mane on day 1!) We rode under covered bridges, and up hills so steep cyclists in front of you looked vertical. We rode across parks, on country roads in the middle of nowhere, and through busy intersections, traffic and stoplights. We dodged potholes and tree branches.
The morale throughout the weekend was immeasurable: lots of cheering, high-fives and hugs. That weekend I made 200 new friends. My fellow riders became my rocks every step of the way, helping me up hills, guiding me through traffic and encouraging me to do my best and stay strong and motivated. People I just met are now people I can't imagine my life without.
I rode the entire route, coming to a total of about 213 miles. I pushed myself to ride the full 90 miles the second day, which I had doubted my ability to do, including that very morning. As I finished, happy and relieved tears streaming down my face, I was greeted by a group of about 20 people outside the hotel cheering for me. It felt unreal, like a scene from a movie. Despite my body being physically tired, I never felt so alive that afternoon. I felt empowered.
Tour de Pink, in its entirety, was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life.
But I knew, going in that it would be. So in addition to my physical training, I mentally prepared myself for moments when I felt like quitting.
Prior to the ride friends and family sent me messages of support, flowers and gift baskets. One friend in particular told me to "save nothing" during Tour de Pink, meaning to give it my all; hold nothing back. I remembered that message loud and clear throughout the whole weekend, and especially on day 2 as I rode the farthest I had ever ridden in my life.
Physically I had to push myself through miles and miles and hours and hours of riding on challenging and often stressful terrain. I pushed my body to its ultimate limits. I really did save nothing; I used every last ounce of my reserve.
Mentally I had to wake up each morning and tell myself to do it again. And again.
And emotionally I reminded myself why I am riding: for myself, and for other women and their families; so young women don't have to face breast cancer alone. When I was diagnosed at the age of 26 I had limited resources, but when I found the YSC I knew I had somewhere to turn. Through other survivor stories, message boards, news articles and events I found my place in a scary world of uncertainty. That's why I was riding. Because I didn't want other young women to feel alone in the face of a disease that is often misunderstood or overlooked in people like us.
I met other young women survivors who were under 30, like myself, when diagnosed, and even a woman who, like myself, was planning her wedding when she got breast cancer. I met other supportive husbands and boyfriends, like Sean, who were there to ride with or support their wives and girlfriends.
I rode with women who are currently undergoing chemotherapy. I rode with women who have cancer.
Tour de Pink allowed me to connect, physically and emotionally, and on a deeper level, to other people who share my fears and anxieties. Until the ride, I could count on less than one hand the young women I met, in person, who had dealt with or who were battling breast cancer. But I knew they existed and I knew meeting them would provide me with a sense of community: that, no matter how different our stories or journeys, together we can get through the battle, during and after breast cancer.
When I crossed the finish line in Yards Park in Washington D.C. on Sunday, Sept. 29, I was joined by family and friends holding signs and handing me chocolate cupcakes, flowers and champagne. I had waited for that day since February: the day I had trained for, prepared for, rode for.
I had envisioned coasting under the balloon tunnel, unclipping my cleats, getting off my bike and crying happy tears, surrounded by Sean and my family, friends and fellow riders. And it happened. Exactly like that. I had done it. I knew my life would change after I completed Tour de Pink, but it actually changed the moment I started.
If you had asked me one year ago, or even seven months ago, if I could imagine myself riding more than 200 miles in three days on a bike I would have told you, simply, "no."
I would have told you my legs would feel like jelly.
I don't own a "real bike" and I'm not a cyclist. Those would be my answers.
But I proved to myself none of that mattered. The YSC and Tour de Pink made sure none of that mattered.
It didn't matter that seven months ago I could barely ride at all. It didn't matter that one year ago, to the month, I had my last breast cancer surgery and couldn't lift a gallon of milk, or even my arms above my head.
But most of all it didn't matter that I wasn't a cyclist. Somewhere along the way I become one.
Why I rode
Another year has gone by, and another Breast Cancer Awareness Month is here, forcing me to think about my battle and how it's changed my life. And I am blessed and happy to report I continue to remain healthy and am approaching my two-and-a-half-year survivor mark. Since "My pink ribbon" in last year's Breast Cancer Awareness Centre Spread in The Gazette, I have had the opportunity to share my story many more times for many different audiences and events, and through many different outlets. And I plan to continue to write to spread awareness.
But now I'm adding something else to my list of accomplishments: I rode a double century to support young women with breast cancer. In the process I raised funds for the YSC, met other people, made lifelong friends, became a cyclist, became a better athlete, tested myself, challenged myself and conquered one of the biggest physical challenges of my life.
So ask me again what I was thinking in February when I signed up for Tour de Pink. I still couldn't give you an answer, because there isn't just one. I saw an opportunity to do something considerable for a cause rooted so deeply in my heart. Not knowing what path lie ahead, I saw a chance and I decided to take it. I saw a dream and decided to give it wheels.
About the YSC
According to the YSC, more than 11,000 women under 40 will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. Currently there are more than 250,000 women living in the U.S. who were diagnosed with breast cancer under age 40.
Issues young women with breast cancer face, among many others, include body image; relationships and dating; fertility; early onset menopause; and financial challenges, according to the YSC.
The Young Survival Coalition is the premier global organization dedicated to the critical issues unique to young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer. The YSC offers resources, connections and outreach. The YSC's founders were all diagnosed with breast cancer before the age of 35, and saw the need for better information, support and research for young women facing the disease.
The YSC, founded in 1998, works with its members to advocate for more studies about young women and breast cancer; educate young women about the importance of breast self-awareness and knowledge; and serve as a community of support for young women with breast cancer. Headquartered in New York City, it has almost 30 affiliates throughout the United States.