When my father was dying of leukemia in 2001, I learned that with cancer it’s not death so much as the dying that is so terrible. I also learned that while we may feel helpless as individuals in confronting this disease, we can find tremendous power as a group.
Clearly in pain and ready to go, my father lingered for a number of days, slowly losing those aspects of life – mobility, speech, awareness, dignity – that were so much of what he was. In a few short days he melted from “Dad,” an 81 year old man who had been athletic, active and mentally sharp for as long as I’d known him, into a semi-concious organism lying inert in a bed. We were lucky at the time to have home care provided by Hospice of Central New York. (My father wanted to die at home, near my mother, my sister and me.) But even with their help, it was a very trying time.
Watching someone close to you die from cancer creates such a helpless feeling. You want to do something to fight back, to stop the pain, to exact revenge against such a terrible disease. But what can you do? You’re just one person, without any special healing powers or even any medical knowledge. I could ensure that Dad’s last wishes to die at home were fulfilled, and that final arrangements for his remains were carried out. But I couldn’t stop his pain and I couldn’t cure the disease. I was only one person.
But sometimes what is impossible for a lone individual can become possible when you are part of a group.
Since 1995 I have been riding in a “bikeathon” called the Pan-Mass Challenge that raises money for the Jimmy Fund and cancer research and treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Before 2001 I had felt the emotional power of the ride: there are countless people and signs that cheer the riders on along the route, as well as personal messages and photographs many riders carry with them during the ride. Cancer has caused a great deal of pain to many people, and the PMC is one place where people feel free to express and confront that pain.
Seeing such things made a deep impression on me when I rode in the PMC. I can still remember quite clearly climbing the first big hill back in 1995, slowly passing a bagpiper playing Amazing Grace in the early morning haze. The poignancy of that moment brought a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes as I sensed the depth of feeling associated with the ride.
Although I had lost friends and co-workers to cancer over the years, I didn’t truly understand the power of the PMC until my father died from cancer.
I started out the ride that year apathetic and depressed, feeling very much alone even though there were over 2,000 riders around me. Over the early part of that ride I had an internal conversation in which I asked questions and just waited for answers to arise from where ever. I asked why suffering seemed so integral to life – why did people have to suffer from cancer like my father had, and why the pain of the bike ride was such an important part of the PMC. The answer I received was that suffering is the path to redemption – and rising to our best. I questioned why such suffering and redemption were necessary; the answer I got back was that we all need redemption, to get beyond whatever negativity and guilt we may feel about ourselves.
After 40 miles or so it began to rain, lightly at first. Around 80 miles into the ride I was part of a paceline that gradually lengthened as we went along. I started to notice flashes of lightning, the rumble of thunder and an increasing intensity of the rain. The storm became more severe, with occasional vivid lightning followed by loud crashes of thunder. With no reasonable place to stop, we rode on, the energy of the weather and the energy of the other riders increasing my energy to ride quickly and to get through the storm. Everything became a dimly lit, watery blur; I had no idea where we were, how far we’d gone or how far we had to go. We were just a stream of cyclists rushing down the flooded road, with the splashing wake of oncoming cars occasionally washing over our calves and feet.
Eventually the storm tapered off and the sky brightened. We soon came upon the 101-mile waterstop, and I realized we’d ridden right by the previous waterstop in the middle of the storm. After stopping briefly, I rode on to the finish, barely six hours after I’d started 111 miles away. It was the fastest I’d ever ridden the route from Sturbridge to Bourne.
That ride gave me a deeper sense of the power of the PMC. I had started out a lone rider, emotionally cut off from those around me. But riding with that group of riders through that storm had transformed my perspective. My alienation and bitterness had been washed away by the storm and the experience, and I happily joked with friends when I joined them at the finish line.
You might think, given the cause of the ride and the depth of feeling of the riders and those along the route, that the PMC has a somber, funereal quality to it. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What I learned in 2001 was that the PMC enables individuals who have been personally shaken by cancer to join together in a meaningful, powerful way to fight back. The collective power of thousands of riders raising millions of dollars for cancer research and treatment is tremendously uplifting. Aside from the pain of the actual riding, the PMC is really a quite festive affair.
We’ve all been touched by cancer in one way or another; we’ve all experienced feelings of helplessness and despair when confronted with this dread disease. At the PMC, we all have our individual stories about cancer. But we come together in early August as one, sharing a common goal of fighting back and of eventually overcoming cancer. As the years have gone by – it was the 30th PMC last weekend – the riders share the growing confidence of the doctors from Dana-Farber who speak each year at the opening ceremonies on the night before the ride. The tide is turning, our collective knowledge and understanding of how cancer works is growing, and it’s only a matter of time before we – as a group – beat cancer.