As the cancer treatments from 2006 did their work on my wife, she eventually moved into a period of remission. But it wasn’t an easy path. After eight rounds of harsh chemo, they told her that she’d done the ‘Gold Standard’ using intravenous fluids. It was hard. They’d pumped it through a vein in her arm for eight treatments that eventually laid her so low it was hard to function in her job as a preschool teacher. Hair fell out and her feet got numb, but she endured near-killing doses for months on end. I read the Lance Armstrong book “It’s Not About the Bike” and was sobered by the moment when Lance told the doctor, “Give me all you got. You can’t kill me.” To which the doctor replied, “Oh, yes I can.”
Right before the last treatment, the gynecological oncologist told us they wanted to try another series of treatments to really go after cancer cells that had spread around her abdomen. The local gynecologist that did the exploratory surgery that found the ovarian tumor had actually broken the cyst, releasing cancer cells throughout the abdominal cavity. When the surgical gynecologist originally opened her up to feel around inside the abdominal wall and surgically removed any cancer nodes, he said that he’d found what felt like sandpaper lining the smooth surfaces. He’d nicked away all that he could, but it was impossible to know if he’d excised all of it. Given the fact that chemotherapy works through the system to kill the most active cells in the body, it was not certain whether even eight rounds of Cisplatin and some other toxic “drug” would reach all the way into the abdominal wall.
It wasn’t good news to be sure. But we buckled in for three more rounds of chemo after a port was planted in the right side of her stomach.
Think about the strange logic of that for a moment. If you outright drank the chemo substance you’d die within minutes. But dumping it right into the abdominal cavity somehow works at killing cancer.
Or at least, that was the plan. But one Easter Sunday after her second intraperitoneal injection, a leak developed at the port and fluid drained down the front of her stomach. That left a vicious white burn on her skin, a chemo stain that when inspected by the presiding medical oncologist made his eyes go wide. I think he was preparing himself for a potential lawsuit. But we liked the guy and told him to just fix it. That’s all we cared about. When it was all done she was so wiped out it took months for her to recover, grow back some hair and get back to the gardening she most loved.
During all of that, I’d kept up my running to keep sane, but was feeling like it might be time to add another activity as an alternate fitness option. So I finally bought a new road bike to start serious cycling. I’d ridden a beater Trek 400 for several years, but couldn’t keep up with my two best buddies and their roadie friends don’t 60-80 milers on weekends.
Along with my wife’s needs, I’d also been caregiving for my father after my mom passed away in 2005. My brothers offered verbal support and I wasn’t taking any payment for the extra work, so they voted that I could take a bit of my dad’s money to buy a new bike. I visited Spokes, a bike shop in Wheaton, and they sold me on the purchase of a 2006 Felt 4C, a model named “Bike of the Year” by Bicycling Magazine. It had a carbon-fiber frame and Dura-Ace derailleur and brakes. High quality stuff.
The first ride on that bike was like a dose of heaven. It was hard to make the Trek go faster than 17 mph most days. On the Felt, I flew along at 18-20 and was about three miles from home that first day when I struck something with the wheel and heard the awful ‘PHFFFFSHHHHH’ of a flat tire. That meant I had to stop and change it. I’d hit a piece of metal on the shoulder. It left a mark in the rim that remained there the entire time I rode those wheels until the spokes broke, and I bought a new set.
It was good that I had to stop and change that flat. I’m not the most mechanical guy on earth and having to deal with the vagaries of flats is one of the aspects of cycling I needed to learn. I rode tough old tires on the Trek and hardly ever flatted. That new racehorse of a bike was something different.
Adding cycling to my life was a point of sanity that complemented the running. I joined the Athletes By Design racing team and rode with the group every Wednesday. There were also Saturday morning rides with twenty guys motoring out of St. Charles. Talk about a testosterone test! I did my best. Usually, I’d hang the bunch through sixty miles at a 20-22 mph average and get dropped when they really started ripping. Most of those riders had 10-20 years of cycling experience in their legs. I was the newbie, even showing up that first day with the reflectors still pinned in the spokes and a “brim” on my helmet that no serious roadie keeps.
On top of those rides, I started bike racing in criteriums. Adding all that in the face of the caregiving and work I was already doing sounds insane, but once my wife was in remission, it was my goal to get back in touch with some of my own interests. Bike racing was an education all its own. The first race I entered was a madcap course in Elgin, Illinois where the first turn when steeply downhill and turned again. A guy when skipping past me sideways when trying to brake and slammed into the hay bales keeping riders out of the lake. I stuck with the pack a few laps and then a bunch of riders in front of me imploded. I was left with a ten yard gap between my bike and the bunch rolling away. Rather than ride on like I should have, I figured to catch back on gradually. Big mistake. I got dropped.
But the race that seemed to symbolize life at the time was a criterium in Elk Grove. At one end of the crit loop there was a hairpin turn right after the starting line. For ten laps or so I worked to stay up front because the lag behind guys turning was so huge. Lap after lap I kept the gas on, even leading into one of the last go-rounds. Excited to be so close to the front when the final lap bell rang, I turned the corner once more and tried going with the lead pack. At that moment, it felt like that scene in the Star Wars movie where the Millennium Falcon tries to go into hyperspace and instead virtually shuts down. I had nothing left in the legs and got dropped immediately. The racers tore on ahead and I tailed along as they disappeared around the block.
That moment symbolized the “one step forward, two steps back” challenges of life’s competitive needs at the time. I was trying to hold down the job, take care of dad with a stroke, a wife with cancer and kids in high school and middle school. Obviously I could not do it all, but kept on trying the best that I could. As my former coach said upon hearing that my wife had cancer, “Your whole life is a preparation for this.” Truer words could not be said.