Ellen Freeman Roth                      

August 3, 2007

Riding for our lives

I heard the sound of the other shoe dropping.

The first shoe had dropped seven years before when I'd learned through a research trial at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute that I had a mutation on my BRCA1 gene, putting me at high risk for ovarian cancer, which killed my mother at 48, and breast cancer, which killed my aunt at 39.

Learning my gene status at age 38 heightened my own fear of dying and leaving my young son and daughter motherless. But medicine had come a long way since my mother died, and there were steps I could take. I'd have my ovaries removed, the recommended measure to reduce risk of developing ovarian cancer. But first there was something I had to do. I'd heard about the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, a fund-raising bike-a-thon to raise money for cancer research and treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. I would no longer be a victim. I strapped on my first pair of bike cleats and, energized by friends' generous donations, rode the 192 miles from Sturbridge to Provincetown.

Six years after my ovaries were removed I had a breast MRI, then a new protocol (and now a standard tool) between annual mammograms for women at high risk for breast cancer. My MRI indicated increased blood flow to one breast. Further tests led to the call I'd always dreaded. I had cancer. The other shoe had dropped, or so I thought.

Skillful and vigilant medical professionals using cutting-edge technology had discovered my cancer at a pre-invasive stage, and aggressive surgery cured me and diminished my risk of developing another primary breast cancer. My survival prognosis was 99 percent. I was living proof that research saves lives. It turned out that friends and family who'd donated to support my Pan-Mass Challenge rides had helped save my life.

This year when I registered to ride my 11th Pan-Mass Challenge, my 17-year-old son, Josh, and 15-year-old daughter, Maddie, who'd previously volunteered at the Pan-Mass with my husband, Steven, insisted they wanted to ride. I tried to dissuade them. I didn't want them to embrace this cause simply because I had. And I knew I'd be training them, which, when it came time to roust those teenagers out of bed for training rides, could be a source of conflict. But they dug in their heels. After all, the cause already was theirs, not only because I was cured but also because they each have a 50 percent chance of inheriting my gene alteration. And beyond our own family, they've experienced the powerlessness and sadness of watching friends lose loved ones to cancer.

So we, along with my daughter's 15-year-old friend Alexis, will be among 5,000 fund-raising bicyclists (including more than 200 Living Proof riders like me) pedaling several Pan-Mass routes on Aug. 4 and 5 toward a cure for cancer. Riders starting in Sturbridge, Wellesley, and Bourne will cycle through 46 Massachusetts cities and towns, many ending in Provincetown, with the support of 2,500 volunteers, more than 120,000 donors, and 200 corporate sponsors. We're all working toward raising $27 million this year, which will bring the Pan-Mass Challenge's contribution to Dana-Farber beyond $200 million over 28 years.

With 99 cents of every rider-raised dollar going directly to cancer research and treatment, the Pan-Mass Challenge is a model of efficiency. It's also a model of spirit and commitment that stretches across race, age, and economic groups. Each year supporters dig deeper, often sponsoring several riders as the event grows. People know that the sound of the other shoe dropping may be muffled by 5,000 fund-raising bicyclists shifting into gear.