How cycling keeps me sane as my cancer metastasizes.
How I got up here given my current weight and lack of conditioning, I don’t know.
A combination of Androgen Deprivation Therapy or ADT (aka, “Eunuch Therapy” — the elimination of testosterone with primary side effects being weight gain, muscle loss, hot flashes and the development of man boobs), a broken rib from a metastasized tumor that stayed broken for five months, and a Chicago winter that killed my motivation to ride outside (I’ve never been able to ride inside), left me woefully out of shape and the heaviest I had ever been in my life.
The Polar Vortex had my mental condition deteriorating in harmony with my physical condition.
Luckily, my wife and I had the means to leave the cold behind. (The reason we “had the means” is because she is still working. I am the lout who retired early using the excuse that by riding and not working, I may prolong my life.)
So here I am on my second ride in Santa Barbara, climbing up a mountain road, pulling all 206 pounds of my usually 178-pound frame up steep switchbacks and inclines, sweating in the 58-degree dry heat as my thick legs rub together wearing out the inner thighs of my expensive cycling shorts, my knees aching, panting — hell, gasping — thinking to myself, “What are you doing? Turn back! Turn back!”
But as any serious cyclist will tell you, suffering is what cycling is all about.
So I do what I have always done on climbs: turn the pedals over, one revolution at a time. When cycling up steep hills or mountains, one’s world becomes infinitesimally small: “One more turn. One more. One more…”
The night in 2011 when I received the call from my urologist’s nurse telling me that my biopsy came back positive for an aggressive form of prostate cancer, Gleason 5+5, the most aggressive there is, my mind immediately turned to cycling up the steep ramps of western Wisconsin’s Driftless Area where many road grades measure 15% to 23%. Those unrelenting hills are so steep that I once witnessed a famous retired pro cyclist exclaim to an event organizer at the end of 100 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain in Wisconsin, “What the fuck did you do to us? What the fuck was that?”
The nurse told me I would need to act quickly, surgery, radiation or both. We scheduled an appointment with the doctor. There was no time to waste.
Like climbing those steep Wisconsin hills, I would shrink my world. I would not project out. Stay focused, one revolution at a time.
I’m up high now, the ocean visible in the distance. I look down at my Garmin. I had climbed a little more than a thousand feet in eight miles. “That’s a good day,” I think to myself, ready to turn back.
I’m heading up to the top of that mountain. Given my conditioning and weight, I must be nuts.
But I don’t feel horrible. It’s a sunny, cool day, perfect for riding up a mountain. I make a left off Mountain Drive and up El Cielito Road towards Gibraltar Road, the way to the top. The opening kicker on El Cielito is especially steep. My pedal stroke is slow, methodical.
Every pedal stroke hurts. As it should.
I reach the intersection with Gibraltar Road and make a right, headed skyward.
After my prostate surgery in November 2011, the resulting pathology report showed residual cancer in tissue surrounding the prostate bed. I had a choice: radiate or wait-and-watch.
With the aggressiveness of my cancer, not having radiation almost certainly would result in metastasis and probably quickly. I was 55 and fit. There really wasn’t any question.
My radiation oncologist, Dr. Stanley Liauw at the University of Chicago Hospitals, suggested a plan of 38 radiation treatments, five days a week for seven-and-a-half weeks scheduled to begin after several months of ADT.
I asked Stan if he thought I could ride my bike to every treatment. “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that before,” he replied. “You’ll be feeling pretty sick about midway through, probably around treatment 16 or 17.”
“What kind of sick?” I asked.
“Well… Rectal urgency,” Stan replied.
That was a new one on me.
It was a 44-mile round trip between my home and the U of C medical campus. I started treatment the day after Memorial Day in May of 2012. I rode to all 38 treatments during the third hottest summer in Chicago history with an average daily high temperature over my treatment period of 90, accompanied by suffocating Midwest humidity.
And I did get sick about halfway through treatment. So sick that during a couple of rides, I was fortunate to have the containment profile of cycling shorts.
The Gibraltar Road/White Mountain climb, proper, is about six-and-a-half miles with grades ranging from 7.5% to 15%. From our place, it is 10.5 miles to the top, climbing all the way from the garage door to the peak.
I start up Gibraltar knowing the better part of the next two hours would be spent turning the cranks. I’m riding a compact with an 11–32 cassette, a set-up I would have been ashamed to own in my younger days. Given my current girth, I could have used mountain bike gearing, but what fun is riding without character-building struggle?
As I climb, I fear that at some point, the inner thighs of my shorts may burst into flame from the friction. Either that, or my lungs might explode. Conflagration either way.
Members of a cycling team begin passing me, a rail-thin climber first. They shout their encouragement as they zip by, a courtesy common among cyclists on long climbs. It’s a natural expression of empathy, especially when you see some heavy dude lumbering away wearing a “Fuck Cancer” jersey.
I hear measured puffing coming up from behind. A team member with thick thighs crawls alongside me, undoubtedly the team sprinter. “Hey, fuck cancer,” he says, giving me a thumbs-up.
“Thanks,” I reply, smiling through the pain.
And off he pedals. Slowly. I feel better about myself.
It turns out that 2012 was my biggest cycling year ever in terms of miles thanks to riding to my radiation treatments. I rode 1,500 miles back and forth to treatment with an occasional trail of flies chasing me down the Chicago lakefront, and 8,640 miles for the year. The hormone therapy usually means a weight gain of 10% of one’s typical body weight, but I lost six pounds thanks to riding in the oppressive heat and humidity.
I’ve continued to ride throughout my two subsequent bouts of bone metastasis and treatment (ribs-2015, spine and scapula-2019), except when a rib fractured following radiation and remained displaced, painfully so, for five months in 2017. My cancer is ever-present and I rotate on and off ADT. But cycling is my balm, both physical and mental. It keeps me sane when depression lurks at the edges and the blackness lies in wait.
If I’m not riding, I’m in a hole. My Strava feed is a dead giveaway. Pedal I must.
Thirty-six-hundred feet later, I’m at the top of Gibraltar Road/White Mountain. A couple enjoying the backcountry view from their pick-up offers to snap a picture of me. Could they see the combination of exhaustion/exhilaration etched into my face?
Suffering begets joy. How will I fare when I can no longer ride? Never mind… Turn the pedals, one rotation at a time.
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