Heidi Fischer was diagnosed with a rare type of pancreatic cancer in 2010 — the same type that claimed the life of Aretha Franklin and Steve Jobs. But the Hannibal native has been in remission thanks to a recently-approved medication, and she formed a local team called Heidi's Heroes who will travel to Massachusetts in August to pedal toward a cure in the Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC) bike-a-thon.
The group of dozens of friends and loved ones are raising funds for Dr. Jen Chan's Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Cancer Research Lab at Boston's largest Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, providing research that could lead to the next new treatment for the disease. They are participating in the one- to two-day PMC ride, which covers routes like Wellesley to Provincetown and directs all of the rider-raised money to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. So far, 47 riders have committed to joining the event, with two riders on different teams donating the funds they raise to the cause and three potential riders.
Fischer's friends and loved ones agreed that she has been a fighter and determined to beat cancer through a shared passion of cycling with friends and family. She has lived in Boston for the past 19 years, but she always tells people that she's headed “home for a visit” when she travels to her hometown of Hannibal.
Fischer recalled how special it was to receive a card from Arsene Burton and fellow members of the prayer group at her church just days after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2010.
“I said to my mom, 'How did they know?' I hadn't even told anyone in my Boston community and they were already praying for me in Hannibal!” she said. “That is special and I realize many people do not have that. That is a great source of strength.”
She underwent her first surgery to remove the cancer in her pancreas in 2010, followed by another surgery on her liver in 2013.
“At those times, there weren't medicines,” she said. “The only way they could operate was surgical removal... but it just keeps coming back.”
When the cancer came back for the third time in 2016, Fischer found out about a drug that was recently approved by the FDA — the new treatment stopped the cancer from growing.
“I'm doing better than anyone I know with this cancer,” she said. “I'm very grateful. Their timing was perfect.”
Pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer currently has no cure, but advances made at facilities like the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have led to medicines like Fischer's that target the disease at the molecular level. She said that since she was first diagnosed with cancer, she wanted to find a way to support research. She ran in the Boston Marathon for a couple years, donating the funds she raised for research for all types of cancer. But since pancreatic neuroendocrine is known as an orphan cancer — with less than 200,000 diagnoses each year — but the number is growing, and support for pancreatic cancer in general is on the rise, Fischer said. She wanted to help with research for the type of pancreatic cancer she has, and she now has dozens of fellow team members joining in the fight.
Fellow team member and Fischer's lifelong friend Craig Altheide said he looks forward to the chance to support the Heidi's Heroes cause.
“We went to elementary school together and graduated from high school together, and we've been lifelong friends,” he said. “And when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it hit us all pretty hard. She is a fighter, a very strong person and determined. It was an honor for her to ask me to be part of the team.”
He called the chance to ride on the East Coast “a perfect fit,” because he and Fischer would always ride bikes for fun together when she returned to Hannibal. A fellow team member, Martin Meyer gathered a group of 42 area riders to raise funds with the “Gravel the 13th” ride in April. CoolByke’s owner contributed 10 percent of the store's profits to the effort during April, May and June. He contacted Hannibal Parks & Recreation Director Andy Dorian about constructing a “Purple Ribbon Trail” in Sodalis Nature Preserve, creating a new asset for the community while raising funds for PMC.
“For every $15 you donate, I'll build a yard of trail,” he said. “He goes, 'I think that's a great idea. Look at the front of my desk.'”
Meyer looked down to see a magnet featuring the purple ribbon for pancreatic cancer research. He said department personnel are big supporters of the annual Hannibal Pancreatic Cancer Research Walk, which will take place at 9 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 19 at the Sodalis Nature Preserve. Meyer was looking forward to the chance to make an impact that could result in a new medication to help somebody.
“Heidi is so enthusiastic about it — and then when you get other folks from home that you know are going, it ought to be a pretty couple days to ride bikes,” he said. “I've never ridden my bike in that part of the country. I'm excited to be a part of it.” Roger agreed about the difference the team members could make.
“It's an honor to go ride with Heidi and the other 6,000 people to raise awareness and funds for research for cancer, especially pancreatic cancer,” he said. “I think we've all had friends that cancer has devastated their lives. It's just a chance to give thanks for being healthy, and to be able to go do something to help other people and try and make a difference.”
Heidi's sister, Andrea, is also excited to help make a positive impact with Altheide, Meyer, Dr. Curtis and Debra Burton and Roger McGregor. She shared her joy that her sister has been living with the cancer for several years and is now in remission.
“I am really happy that so many people from Hannibal have found about this ride and decided to go on it, because it's a long way,” she said. “But it sounds like it will be a lot of fun, and I think it will be for a good cause.”
Heidi Fischer said she is inspired by the combined impact of 6,000 cyclists and 1,000 volunteers. Last year, Team Heidi's Heroes had 29 members and two independent riders — she is very close to reaching her goal of 50 team members for the 2019 ride. She said PMC founder Billy Starr said this year's event will include 6,500 riders, 4,000 volunteers and will raise $56 million in donations for cancer research.
It's just been a real positive experience,” she said. “It's a win-win all around. You just realize the generosity of people, it's amazing.”
For more information about PMC, visit www.pmc.org .