A team of family, longtime friends and bicycling enthusiasts from Hannibal recently completed a journey on their bikes, pedaling toward a cure for cancer in Massachusetts.
Their dear friend and cancer survivor Heidi Fischer gathered Team Heidi's Heroes and set a fundraising goal to fight cancer. At the family home, Fischer handed out picture books to friends after their rides in the Pan-Mass Challenge. During the two-day ride, the team surpassed their goal of $250,000 — raising $255,000 for Dr. Jen Chan’s Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Cancer Research Lab at Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, providing research that could lead to the next new treatment for the disease.
"It's amazing. Last year, I was setting the goals, and I'm like OK, let me just shoot for the sky," she said. "And we all did it."
Fischer said team members raised money in a variety of ways — Roger McGregor sold handmade pens and wine stoppers, Martin Meyer organized a "Gravel the 13th" April bike ride and constructed a "Purple Ribbon Trail" in Sodalis Nature Preserve and CoolByke owner James Zimmerman donated profits from his shop leading up to the PMC ride. Team members visited a friend before a patriotic start that included 6,800 riders.
"We all said the National Anthem, and got on our ponies and took off," she said with a laugh.
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. Last month, her friends and loved ones visited Boston for a cause close to each of their hearts.
Fischer was diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer in 2010 — the same type claimed the lives of Aretha Franklin and Steve Jobs. She underwent surgery to remove the cancer and a second surgery to her liver. When cancer returned a third time in 2016, Fischer decided to try a drug recently approved by the FDA. After years of surgical removal as the only option for treatment, she had found a medicine that stopped the cancer from growing.
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. All of the funds raised by Heidi's Heroes go directly to the Neuroendocrine Tumor Research Program at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
"In regard to Heidi's ride, I've never been to an event that was so focused on one goal," McGregor said. "It was just humbling to ride with that many people who had a common vision, a common mission, a common goal."
He and Craig Altheide agreed it was humbling and inspiring to participate in the ride.
"When you get passed by a young man who is a double-amputee in an arm-powered bicycle, and you're thinking your legs hurt — it makes you think, 'I think I'll shut up and keep going,'" McGregor said. Altheide said he missed a night of sleep in the dorms at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, quickly putting the situation into perspective when he thought about the sacrifices people fighting cancer make every day.
"I'm getting on my bike, and I'm going OK, I lost one night of sleep," he said. "These people who are going through this chemo therapy and fighting it — they lose sleep all the time."
Altheide said the ride was beautiful, and the routes were lined with enormous camps featuring first aid tents, drinks, food, repair facilities and other necessities. He shared the sentiment with fellow team members that "it was an emotional ride" for everyone involved. He said a young lady pulled out just ahead of him, with pictures on her jersey of her father and her brother who had passed away from cancer.
Dr. Curtis Burton said the outpouring of thanks and the crowds cheering along the way provided a great boost to everyone riding.
"I never felt so appreciated," Burton said. "For a constant two days, I couldn't believe all of the people who were out there — we're just bikes riding by, for heaven's sakes."
When a fellow rider had an accident, he quickly administered first aid. And he fondly remembered helping another rider on a hand-pedaled bicycle as they climbed a hill — he used a device similar to a ski pole to give him a boost.
Burton held up a photo of hundreds of riders wearing burgundy denoting they were cancer survivors. He remembered the emotions shared by everyone at the camps.
"The songs they play, everybody's teary," Burton said. "It's such a beautiful tribute, and such a beautiful celebration of the human spirit." Fischer said a survivor ceremony featured musical performances dedicated to the theme of survival.
"They always have it at the end of that first day, but this one was extra special," Fischer said.
Friends and family members gathered back at the Fischer family home to celebrate the successful results of their ride and share stories. Fischer looked forward to the chance to gather Team Heidi's Heroes again for a repeat ride to continue in the fight against cancer. And the cause didn't end with the ride — donations are being accepted through Oct. 4. More information about Team Heidi's Heroes and the PMC is available at http://bit.ly/PMCTeamHH.