When Nancy Evans was diagnosed with cancer, she kept thinking about a bicycle.
She had recently moved to Seattle from Maryland and saw many cyclists tooling around her Magnolia neighborhood. Evans, who was 71 at the time, had been athletic her whole life and thought picking up cycling sounded like a great idea.
But a routine checkup in 2011, when she casually mentioned a lump she’d found in her armpit, soon led to a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin mantle cell lymphoma.
Evans sat in her car after the appointment where she’d heard that news, going back and forth about the bike she’d been thinking about buying. She wasn’t sure if it was still a good idea.
“I sat in the car for about 15 minutes [thinking], ‘If I have this cancer and I’m going to have chemotherapy and I’m not going to be able to ride a bike, what am I going to do?’” said Evans, who is now 76. “So I said, ‘I’m going for it!’”
She bought a folding bike that she figured would be useful for commuting the few miles from her house to her medical appointments. Evans hasn’t yet had a drop of chemotherapy though — her oncologists recommended “watchful waiting” for her slow-growing cancer.
But Evans has been doing anything but sitting around and waiting in the five years since her diagnosis. She swims three times a week. She spends a lot of time with her local family — two grandsons and daughter Dr. Heather Evans, a trauma surgeon and medical researcher at Harborview Medical Center. And she’s been all over the city — and beyond — on her bike.
Evans is now gearing up for her fourth Obliteride, the fundraising bike ride that supports Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Evans will be joined by more than 1,400 other riders at this weekend’s event — cyclists pedaling for themselves, for loved ones, for the research that will lead to new treatments.
Like Evans, many of the riders are people living with cancer or are cancer survivors, said Amy Lavin, Obliteride executive director. They “embrace Obliteride as something they can do to help cure cancer — their own or someone else’s. … Obliteride is a time for people to come together, connect over the impact cancer is having on our lives and be inspired by the amazing research happening in the labs at Fred Hutch.”
The riders are choosing between several different routes. Evans will tackle the two-day, 150 mile ride — Obliteride’s longest route — joined by her daughter and son-in-law. It’s a longer ride than she’s ever done before but Evans is not daunted — not by the miles and not by the disease she’s living with.
“I haven’t ridden that far yet, but I feel totally confident that I’ll be able to do it,” she said. “I am so grateful that I remain healthy even though I have a cancer diagnosis.”
Evans is inspired by Obliteride not just because cancer research at the Hutch has helped her personally — Fred Hutch lymphoma researcher Dr. Oliver Press has helped advise her primary oncologist on her care — but because she’s seen the importance of medical research over and over in those around her. Evans’ husband, Dr. Charles Evans, is a retired doctor and medical researcher whose research contributed to an early type of immunotherapy that formed part of a successful treatment for his own bladder cancer later in life. Their daughter, Heather, is the fifth-generation medical doctor in the Evans family and has developed a smartphone app, which will be offered to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance breast cancer patients and other surgery patients to reduce post-surgery complications.
“So when I discovered what Obliteride was all about, I was all in,” Evans said.
The bike ride is now in its fourth year. The past three years have raised more than $6.8 million — all of which goes directly to cancer research at the Hutch, thanks to the ride’s sponsors, which cover the event’s overhead costs. Obliteride dollars have funded a broad range of research projects, including studies of metastatic breast cancer; brain tumor biology and tools to better analyze clinical data; lung cancer research and public health studies; and prostate cancer, immunotherapy and pediatric brain cancer research.
For Dr. Jerry Radich, donning an Obliteride jersey this year, as he has every year since the ride’s inception, is a no-brainer. He remembers hours watching his dad build bikes when he was a kid. He’s been a serious road bicyclist for the past decade. And Obliteride’s goal — to cure cancer faster — mirrors his own.
“It’s what I do. We try to cure cancer,” said Radich, 61, whose lab works on new diagnostic tools for chronic myeloid leukemia, or CML. “It seems like a pretty easy fit, to encourage people to do something healthy and fun and get money for cancer research at the same time.”
Radich’s work has directly benefited from the ride. Dollars raised in the first Obliteride funded an early-stage research project launched in 2014 that is now a major focus of his whole laboratory team, Radich said. He and his colleagues have developed a method to diagnose CML from a spot of blood dried on a special type of paper, rather than with tubes of fresh blood.
That advance is important because many developing countries lack the clinical resources to correctly diagnose cases of CML on the spot, so blood has to be shipped around the world to diagnostic labs. The cost of one-day shipping for a tube of fresh blood on ice from Africa to Radich’s lab in Seattle is upwards of $500, he said.
But his team recently showed they can diagnose CML just as accurately from a spot of blood mailed by “snail mail” from Adelaide, Australia to Seattle — even though the dried blood sample spends an average of six weeks in transit. In partnership with Seattle’s The Max Foundation, Radich is using those diagnoses to connect CML patients in the developing world with free, lifesaving drugs.
Radich continues to ride on his team, Le Tour de Fred, even though this new, Obliteride-launched research area keeps him busy. It’s not just about his own research. He knows the personal toll, too, and has lost loved ones to cancer. Like so many, he understands the urgency of finding cures. Obliteride is a way to help.
Brian Tracy is obsessed with getting outdoors. The 33-year-old environmental engineer has always been into outdoor activities — paddleboarding, hiking, camping — but a few years ago, his left leg started acting up. It seemed weaker than his right, and he was having balance problems.
Tracy went to several doctors, who at first thought he had a pinched nerve in his lower back. While he was in the midst of sorting out the leg problem, he switched his workouts back to a college hobby, easier on his weak left side — cycling.
Eventually, unconvinced by his original diagnosis and as the weakness progressed, Tracy last year made his way to a University of Washington neurologist. That doctor found a malignant tumor in Tracy’s brain. Known as an anaplastic oligodendroglioma, or AO, the tumor can’t be removed surgically due to its location, Tracy’s doctors told him, but his prognosis is still decent. His treatment — radiation and chemotherapy at SCCA — seems to have worked to shrink the tumor.
The spring of 2015 was a weird season for Tracy and his wife, Kim. There was the tumor, newly discovered. And they’d recently found out that Kim was expecting their first child, a baby girl.
The combination of those two big pieces of news, Tracy’s interest in living sustainably — in all meanings of the word — and a near-philosophical conversation with his neurologist led him to a decision about his outlook on the disease. Tracy’s doctor had told him that, in a way, his tumor was unique, since it came from his own, unique cells. It was a part of his biology that wouldn’t ever occur in anyone else.
That idea stuck with him. And he also knew he’ll likely be living with the tumor for the rest of his life. Like many patients and survivors, Tracy is tired of the cancer as battle rhetoric. It doesn’t fit with how he thinks about his life or his disease.
“I didn’t want to fight myself,” Tracy said. “The doctors were pretty clear — the tumor will never be gone … I don’t want to fight the rest of my life against this thing.”
Their daughter’s impending arrival was a shifting moment, too, Tracy said: “We don’t want to bring a kid into a world that’s stressful, with her parents stressed out and worried and anxious. She was a huge inspiration to stay positive.”
Soon after his diagnosis, Tracy’s friend and colleague, graphic designer Stephanie Pride, surprised him with a T-shirt made in his honor, with the phrase “Be Positive” written across it.
Now, more than a year after that fateful spring, Tracy has just finished his last chemotherapy treatment, is adjusting to life as a new dad (his daughter, Rosemary, is almost 9 months old) — and is getting ready for his first Obliteride. (The latest incarnation of the “Be Positive” shirts benefit Obliteride and the Hutch.)
He found out about the ride through a mutual friend of Lavin, Obliteride’s executive director. Tracy liked the idea of signing up for a race to look forward to right after his last chemo cycle. Gearing up for the 25-mile ride this weekend feels good, Tracy said, even if recovering from treatment and the lingering effects of his tumor is a “new normal” to get used to.
“What is normal doesn’t really make sense to me anymore … But the last time I had ‘normal,’ I didn’t have a daughter,” he said. “My big goal now is to get back to as physically healthy as I can be.”
Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.