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Bike Therapy: Fighting Cancer From the Saddle

If you’re like me, the bike is more than just a tool to drag you up a mountain. Instead, the bike wears many hats, whether it’s a mode of transportation, a conduit to a circle of friends, or more often than not, a therapist. And in the past three years of my life, it’s been performing dutifully as the latter. I suppose that it boils down to the silence, the dedication to the moment, the physical and mental anguish. I don’t really know, because yes, at the surface, it’s all of this, yet it’s incomprehensibly more obtuse as to why we’re able to give ourselves so completely to the bike in times of confusion. I don’t know how or why I’m able to do this either, but when cancer brought the deepest of losses to my door, I had no choice but to turn to my oldest friend.

Three years ago, my now-wife got the call from her mother. The cancer was back. She’d been in remission for some time, but the dormant dragon of breast cancer had now metastasized to her liver. What this meant exactly, I couldn’t say at the time. Words like “oncologist” were nothing more than things that I’d heard before. But I knew that this was bad, I knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. Shortly thereafter, we dropped our jobs, our friends, and our lives as we knew it, and moved clear across the country to be with her. Of course, the bike wasn’t trusted to the movers, it traveled in the backseat of the car with us.

You see, I didn’t know anyone out here. Everyday consisted of wearing a brave mask for the household, but even more so for my wife. And whenever the situation became overwhelming, I was left with no choice but to converse with the bike through sweat and suffering. It’s always been a one-sided conversation, and if my bike could talk, it would probably complain that I’m the type of friend that only calls when something’s wrong, when I only want someone to agree with me. But I relied on this dialogue, and it quickly became something that truly mattered in my life. All in all, it was, and has been, my point of respite from the wolves clawing at the door.

As time progressed, and conditions worsened, I found myself out on the road more often. Enough so that my mother-in-law would always ask if that was me that she saw out on the road that morning. These rides became equal parts escapism, momentary denial, and eventually, acceptance. But I believe that she understood the significance and the role that the bike played in my processing her process. In fact, I remember when times got tight between jobs, she condemned the possibility of me selling my bike for some extra cash. She said, “you can’t sell your bike, it’s who you are.” And in retrospect, I guess that she was right, not just for me, but for all of us in the cycling community. At the root of it, cycling is just who we are. And while we might turn our backs on each other, the bike always keeps its door open and the light on.

It went on like this for nearly two years, until the dialogue became second nature. If a climb was ripping my lungs out, I thought of the unwavering strength that my mother-in-law displayed everyday. Throughout her treatment, she refused to let ulcers, neuropathy, nausea, or the all-encompassing pain of chemotherapy disrupt her routine. Instead, she continued to walk the dog, cook dinner, run errands, and paddleboard everyday. Cancer be damned, she even planned my wedding throughout the last month of her life. And in the midst of all this, how the hell can anyone complain about their legs burning? This thought drove me. It still drives me today. Never give up.

After all, she refused to ever give up. In the winter of her life, we quickly planned a wedding together. Invitations were sent, arrangements made, and we could all feel the electricity in the air. But on the other side of the coin, she’d already been told that further treatment was futile, and the looming unease of her exit was unavoidably taxing, no matter how gracefully she confronted her own mortality.

A week before the wedding, she was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night — the family dog refusing to leave her side — where she remained for several days. In fact, she was cleared for release shortly before the wedding rehearsal. This would be the last time that we spoke. The morning of the wedding, I received a call from my wife that she’d been rushed to the hospital again — the ulcers were killing her, but she was still there holding on. We anguished over how to continue, but we followed through with the wedding all the same, feebly trying to impose normalcy upon chaos.

That night, she watched us through a medicated haze from the hospital. Watching our wedding through Face Time was her last act. She wore her corsage. She felt the beauty of her first daughter being wed. She fell asleep. She never woke up.

The morning after our wedding, we rushed to the hospital again. We waited four days for a one-hour prognosis to realize itself, and then, she was gone. She never gave up fighting. But where do you go from there? Up the mountain and down the mountain I suppose.

To be perfectly honest, my day-to-day has been taxing. Just getting the words out all the way to the bottom of this page has, in fact, been taxing. Really, though, burying yourself into a ride get’s you over the hump of your problems because you don’t have to think about them. The ride provides a momentary Zen, a fleeting tranquility that washes the dirt and oil of everyday struggles from your mind, only to replace them with the salt of sweat. But pondering about finding peace through the bike means that you have to examine what you’re seeking respite from in the first place, which for all of us, requires bravery. Perhaps the same kind of bravery that you’ve shown, or that Sarah showed, or that you’ll one day have to show. Or maybe, it’s no more complex than getting on your bike and turning the pedals over one-by-one, over-and-over?

I suppose that the takeaway from this is to find whatever your “ride” is. Find it and embrace it — love the hell out of it, love every second of it. Because, after all, you need it more than it needs you, and you never know when you’ll have to call on it to save you from your real life. I’ve learned this lesson, and I’ve reacquainted myself with the notion that impossible things require insufferable work. The best views, the best roads, or the best experiences take a splash of turmoil and dedication to get to their door. And while the road there is often difficult, it’s always worth it. The ride is still as beautiful as ever, and beyond better judgment, I’m left longing for more.