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EFI: Just Keep Pedaling

In 2009 I biked across the United States. I left San Francisco with a ceremonial dip of the back wheel into the Pacific Ocean and arrived in Portsmouth NH fifty-two days and almost 4000 miles later, complete with a police escort, popping corks and the triumphant front wheel dip in the Atlantic.

I rode with a group of cyclists from around the US with Europe and Asia through a company called America by Bicycle. They mapped the route, arranged hotels, hauled bags and provided support with a bike mechanic, snacks every 30 miles or so and basically provided the security of knowing that someone would come looking if you didn’t show up at the end of the day. I went alone but when I left it was with friends bonded by the challenge, thousands of miles and countless stories. We rode fast – as you can without the burden of baggage and secure knowing there is a place to sleep at night. Many days exceeded 100 miles as we worked our way across the ever-changing landscape.

At the top of Monarch Pass, CO … over 12000 feet

I rode EFI – Every F*^%g Inch. I blogged that ride – my first blog. At that time I was very interested in ride statistics – average miles per hour, average heart rate, calories burned, elevation gained, miles per day and dinner – so excuse any typos of posts done in a rush. I was as interested in the physical challenge as I was the territory I biked through or the people I met along the way. Focused on making it to the Atlantic. In later years I grew to see the bike more as a vehicle to find stories and encounters and focused less on the statistics and numbers.

My cross-America ride has been on my mind lately as I enthusiastically followed lobular breast cancer survivor Kim and her husband John as they celebrated her ten year cancerversary and biked self-supported from Oregon to Virginia – a trip they dubbed Motch Across America. I remember what those 9 mile climbs up mountains feel like. I can still recall the ache of tired legs that protest the first 10 miles every morning as they warm back up and settle in for the daily mileage. The thrill of finding a decent cup of coffee in the land of instant crystals and powdered creme. The sense of peace as the routine settles in so at odds with our busy normal lives. I still covet the remarkable freedom of having nothing to do that day but get up in the morning, ride your bike and take it all in. I remember the amazement when it’s over and the delayed elation of having actually done it. And the inevitable letdown of packing up and going home, settling back to “normal” life again, which is somehow different than before. And it did not take long to start asking, “What’s next?!”

I biked across America pre-cancer – before early stage lobular breast cancer tossed my world in 2011 and five years later, when fallopian tube/ovarian cancer sealed my fate. I was late in life to discover my physical strength and endurance. When I grew up girls were supposed to pretty. Not strong.

I only started biking in my mid-30s in 2006 on a team in Seattle raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. These were people like me – normal people with normal lives who wanted to improve their fitness and do it in a way that benefited others.

Our Leukemia Society bike team trained for months for a 100 mile ride around Lake Tahoe. Every training ride got a little longer, and every ride pushed the mental limits of the “can’ts” that we tell ourselves. Or that we believe when others try to rein us in. Every mile chipped away the impossible. It was a beginning for me – I had never thought of myself as an athlete, and I realized that even an average everyday athlete like me, someone who has to work for every mile and every hill, but could train hard enough and persist and succeed. So for me, biking across the US was testing this new freedom and tossing away the remaining “cant’s” and the persistent “impossibles”. It opened doors to a self I never knew existed and an entire social network; lifelong friends who supported each other and each found the same empowerment on these journeys.

Walking Home through the Mustard Field, Rajasthan India

As athletic confidence grew and I took on running and triathlon. My bike trips became more adventurous and challenging with travels through India in 2011. And my personal goals and plans grew. Maybe bike through Africa next? Maybe blog those trips and take photographs? Maybe write a travel book or publish travel essays? Or get my photos more widely distributed and published beyond the local galleries and Seattle coffee house circuit? I began to dream a new life.

But then I was diagnosed with lobular breast cancer in October 2011. At first, I just assumed that I would be one of those people who could power through after chemotherapy. You know, like those people featured in fundraising promos for the endurance events that raise money for cancer organizations. Like Lance Armstrong minus the blood boosts. It was all about being tough and disciplined, right? I even thought that if I trained hard enough and smart enough after cancer treatment I could do a challenging international bike trip 10,000 miles through Asia a year after treatment ended. I wanted to do something even harder and longer than the trip through India – like cancer never actually happened. I signed up and paid the deposit.

But I quickly realized that this much promoted story of the ideal cancer patient was a completely ridiculous expectation for the majority of us. Even me. And no amount of training and planning was going to be enough, especially with lymphedema. So I cancelled that trip. Eventually I found ways to reclaim what had become a key part of my identity, to accommodate my post cancer body and manage lymphedema … and still ride and travel. I adjusted my goals and rode in a way where I have more control of my routine and the challenges. Italy. Prague to Vienna. Nova Scotia. It was good enough. In many ways it was much better and freer.

I begin having early symptoms of Fallopian Tube/Ovarian cancer while on a bike trip through Slovenia in early fall 2016. Strange abdominal pain. Bloated stomach. When I finally got a correct diagnosis at the end of November 2016, the week of my 50th birthday and my five-year cancerversary from lobular breast cancer, the fallopian tube cancer was very advanced. I had become the patient behind the curtain I had written about years earlier.

Between the intensive cancer treatments, the likelihood of recurrence and the newly-discovered brittle bones that left me with a high fracture risk after all the breast cancer treatment, I hung up my helmet. My road bike that journeyed across America was eventually sold. My touring bike still sits in the basement, waiting to be taken out into the world. Her tires are flat and she needs some TLC. But she is there if I want her. While drugs have strengthened my bones and my fracture risk is now similar to most middle-aged women, the drive to ride is gone. Exercise is a daily walk. Sometimes I call it a hike depending on if I am on a trail or in the neighborhood.

Fallopian tube/ovarian cancer treatment requires extensive surgeries and debilitating chemotherapy combinations. And the cancer usually recurs in months – or maybe years if you are lucky. Acknowledging this, I did not try to reclaim the pre-cancer body and physical activities this time. Instead, I put my energy towards advocating for those with lobular breast cancer and went back to my advocacy roots and political campaign training, taking advantage of the window of opportunity after the 2016 First International Lobular Breast Cancer Symposium to try and build an advocacy movement with some amazing breast cancer researchers and advocates. The result was founding the Lobular Breast Cancer Alliance. This was four years of my life well spent. I feel grateful knowing that thousands of women have benefited so far from having information about their disease that informs their self-care. And I know that now the research is on track to tailor therapies in the future.

Members of the “LobMob”, advocating for lobular breast cancer education and research

I never imagined when I dipped my back wheel in the Pacific in 2009 at the start of that Cross America bike ride that my life would end up where it is today. I look back at my cycling adventures – and my life adventures and more than a few mis-adventures – with pleasure and some sadness.

I credit that cross-America bike ride in part for the mental strength to make it this long trip through two cancers and years of cancer treatment so far. Reconciling life with metastatic cancer draws on the same mental strength and focus required to bike EFI.

It’s amazing how far you can go if you Just. Keep. Pedaling.

Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate lives in Seattle, WA. She is a two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate, a communications specialist and writer, a nature lover and fan of beaches, mountains and big trees in the Pacific Northwest.