What diamonds, a bicycle and one man's mission have to do with curing cancer

For the CEO of Blue Nile, raising money for research by cycling in Obliteride is personal
Blue Nile CEO Harvey Kanter
Blue Nile CEO and cancer survivor Harvey Kanter in his Seattle office. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

He calls it “the physical from hell”: Seven hours of poking and prodding by doctors, a cardiac stress test on a treadmill, hearing and vision tests — the works. Even worse, his boss made him do it.

Harvey Kanter, then 42, was a marathoner and avid cyclist — “healthy as an ox,” he said — when the CEO of the large corporation where he worked responded to his own cancer diagnosis by insisting that Kanter and the company’s 11 other senior executives at the time start getting annual, all-day physicals.

In the fifth year, the physical from hell became truly frightening: a cardiac imaging test the doctors almost skipped ended up locating a golf ball-sized mass in his chest.

It was non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Kanter endured five months of treatment, including surgery, five rounds of chemo and 20 rounds of radiation. Now, almost eight years later, he’s back to health and nearly to his final post-cancer checkup, where he expects to get the all-clear. Kanter, today the chairman, CEO and president of the online jewelry retailer Blue Nile Inc., credits his own cancer experience for raising his awareness of the broad societal impact of the disease and for helping to foster his drive to support cancer research.

“You’ve got to pick where to spend your time, and I think cancer is just such a huge deal today in society,” said Kanter, who is currently the top individual fundraiser for the 2015 Obliteride, the annual bike-ride weekend to raise money for research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Kanter, who this year has raised more than $21,000, is riding with more than a dozen members of a team from Blue Nile, which is participating in the event for the second year in a row.

After moving to Seattle in 2012 to take the helm of Blue Nile, Kanter came for a tour at Fred Hutch. He was “blown away,” he said, by the science he saw and, as a cyclist himself, was intrigued by Obliteride. Shortly thereafter, he decided that Blue Nile would take on Obliteride as one of the company’s major charitable causes.

“I had this strong desire to get Blue Nile more involved in the community where we live,” said Kanter, who said he believes that community involvement is important to employees and to business stewardship.

“How you get there [to success] is really critical,” Kanter said. “I’d rather get us involved in the community, do great work and get great results, than produce great results and none of that other stuff,” he said.

In addition to its riding team, the company is again sponsoring a rest stop along the route, and throughout the year, Kanter volunteers behind the scenes to provide the Obliteride organization with strategic guidance.

“From the beginning, Harvey has demonstrated extreme commitment, passion and energy to Obliteride,” said Amy Lavin, executive director of Obliteride, who has known Kanter since March 2014. “In very short order, he activated a spirited group of Blue Nile participants, and together they carry on the Obliteride mission and spirit throughout everything they do year-round to support cancer research at Fred Hutch.

“I think the world of him,” Lavin said. “He’s always available for counsel and feedback or making an extra phone call. His incredible acumen is also impressive. He’s just really sharp and dedicated.”

Dr. Sofia Frost
Click to view five riders who are participating in Obliteride this year, including Fred Hutch’s Dr. Sofia Frost. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The qualities that likely helped bring Kanter to the top of the business world are also apparent in his love for daunting bike rides: He’s riding a two-day route at Obliteride this year and, just days later, celebrating his eighth cancerversary with  a week of hilly riding along Oregon’s Hood River, which he gleefully predicts to be “complete punishment.”

He credits his parents for modeling that energy and drive for him, both professionally — Kanter’s dad, Gerald, has been a top exec at numerous retail companies, including Target — and personally.

Kanter speaks admiringly of how his mom, Ruth, handled her own cancer survivorship. After a diagnosis of sarcoma in her foot around age 60, she opted for a partial leg amputation to improve her odds of survival and lived nearly 10 more years before dying peacefully in her sleep.

“My mom never missed a beat,” said Kanter. “She just said, ‘Screw this.’ At some level that was inspiring.”

Now he’s a survivor himself, and, like his mom, he’s also looking forward.

“As a cancer survivor, every so often when you’re not feeling great, you always wonder if something’s up,” Kanter said. “And that extends itself to: ‘What am I doing today? Does it make a difference?’”

Harvey’s tips for Obliteriders

Riding Obliteride this year or interested in signing up? Or are you a complete newbie (like Fred Hutch News Service photographer Bo Jungmayer) and not sure where to start? Kanter has some tips to help make the most out of the event.

Have fun. “The single most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the rest stops,” Kanter said. Even though Kanter enjoys a little friendly competition himself, he emphasized that Obliteride is a fun ride, not a competition — and it’s a whole weekend of events, kicked off by the Friday night party at Gas Works Park and the Sunday party at the finish line.

Spend time in the saddle. As for training, riders have just got to put in time in on the bike, Kanter said. “Not even a lot of miles, just ride often to get used to it,” he said.

Just ask. Kanter has found that many new riders find the fundraising to be intimidating — until they work up the courage to start asking for support. “It’s so much easier than they think,” he said. Supporters are inspired by the fact that Obliteriders are challenging themselves to do something so physically difficult, he said. “People really appreciate that you’re really doing something to make an effort.” The bottom line? “Just ask.”

Kanter, with his characteristic confidence, certainly did.

“’If I’ve offended you because I’ve reached out and you haven’t heard from me in a while, I’m sorry,’” he said he wrote to 487 people — friends, family members, distant acquaintances — to tell them about Obliteride and ask for their support to reach his fundraising goal.

“’But I just don’t care. Because I’m trying to cure cancer.’”

Are you riding in Obliteride? Tell us about it on Facebook.

Susan Keown, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at skeown@fredhutch.org.

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