I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to ride a bike. My sisters, friends and I rode bikes all the time during childhood. It was a wonderful way to have fun, get exercise, go somewhere without relying on our parents to drive us, and simply enjoy freedom around our town.
I owned a pretty red bike with a banana seat when I was younger. I called her “Rose” and pretended she was my horse (this was before I started riding real horses!). I eventually grew into a 10-speed bike which was a dream because it meant I was old enough to bike alone to my friends’ houses. I spent HOURS on that bike during high school, riding all over my small hometown with friends. We had so much simple fun. I bought a mountain bike in college and loved the freedom it provided to get away from stresses of college life.
Then came cancer when I was 21 and a senior at college. In between chemo treatments, I graduated from college and had surgery to replace my femur and knee with a titanium rod. It took nine weeks of intense physical therapy to remind my leg muscles how to walk again. Then more chemo. When treatment finally ended, I was anxious to resume normal activities. But that wouldn’t happen exactly as I’d hoped because of the need to be careful with the rod. Plus, not even two years after treatment I fell on ice at work, popping the glue that kept my rod in the remaining part of my femur. Another surgery sidelined me for 15 weeks as my bone grew around a custom rod, and my muscles and leg learned to walk yet again. So for a few years, I cautiously participated in activities that I deemed safe – walking, canoeing, weight training. I was bored out of my mind. I finally vented to my surgeon that I wasn’t active enough and missed my former activities such as riding horses and biking. He asked why I didn’t bike. I just assumed it was a ‘please do not attempt’ activity. He didn’t see a reason why I couldn’t ride a bike as long as I was cautious and did my best not to fall (note that this is always a goal of mine, two good legs or not; I have never been a daredevil cyclist.). I left his office with a newfound feeling of giddy anticipation and excitement.
I soon found myself in a bike shop and promptly bought a hybrid mountain bike with all the shocks and comfort I could afford to provide added protection for my leg. And I rode my bike. It was thrilling! Nothing hurt from riding (uh, maybe my thighs that needed some serious exercise). So I rode miles and miles on my favorite trails. Over the years, I would see other cyclists fly by on road bikes that reminded me of my old high school bike. I have no idea why I thought those bikes wouldn’t work for me. I guess I wrongly listened to some people who assumed my leg couldn’t handle it or the clip pedals intimated me or some other reason I convinced myself of (the mental doubts are sometimes the hardest for me to overcome). Last year I stopped in a bike shop to inquire about a new road bike. I received helpful info but, alas, soon put the interest aside as other life stuff was happening.
I can’t share my new bike story without telling about my summer trip to Iowa because it was the final push/inspiration. Earlier this year some friends talked about this bike event across Iowa that Team LIVESTRONG participates in. The Register’s Great Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) takes cyclists more than 400 miles across Iowa over seven days. Each day ends at a different town where huge campgrounds are erected, entertainment, food and drink are available, and you meet cool people. I was intrigued but that little voice in the back of my head said I probably couldn’t bike that many miles (such an annoying voice at times). So instead I made a plan to head to Iowa to meet up with my girlfriend to road trip with the team.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve made this year. First, the girl time was amazing – we laughed, shared stories, found adventures only we could together, laughed more. And not only did I reinforce some amazing friendships and make many new, but I was inspired. As the days progressed across Iowa, I listened to the team members’ personal stories and stories of stops along the road. I began to ponder how I might participate with the team in the future and designed a possible pitch to my surgeon. It was the last day that really added to my interest….after the bikers left camp, a small group of us finished packing and hit the road to meet the team. When we stopped for breakfast, I sat with another young adult cancer survivor who shared his story. We talked about overcoming physical limitations from cancer and our mutual frustrations at having these physical side effects at times slow us down when we don’t want to be slowed down! We also talked about the things that motivate us to move and overcome our side effects any way that we can. There was something in this conversation that really touched and motivated me.
Cancer never leaves any of us who have been affected by this disease. I was reminded on this trip that I will never be alone on this journey. With more than 16 million cancer survivors in the United States, there is always someone to say, “I get it. I understand.” And while I wish none of us had to go through cancer, I’m grateful to have so many beside me.
When I returned home from Iowa, I made a decision to get that road bike and tell that doubting voice to take a nap. Helpful friends patiently answered a LOT of questions (and still do!). I received great customer service and information sharing at several local bike shops. I test rode numerous bikes to determine which provided the best comfort and reliability for my leg. And I finally opted for my Specialized Ruby Elite.
Let me tell you what I like about Ruby (yes, I named her, although not very original). She’s light so I easily can carry her (which is awesome since I’m not supposed to carry heavy weight). She is fast and smooth. And she makes me feel alive. And proud of myself. It may sound silly but, if you haven’t faced a physical limitation (whether from cancer, another disease or injury), you may not understand the satisfied feeling of accomplishment when you overcome anxiety and push caution to the corner. I do that every time I hike a trail, climb a rock wall, attend a Zumba class, ride a bike.
I’ve been trying to take advantage of every mild temperature day to bike. Last weekend, I set my alarm to make sure I was on the trail with the sun. It promised to be a beautiful Michigan fall morning – brisk yet sunny. I unloaded my bike from my car’s rack, slipped on my bike shoes, strapped on my helmet, looked at the empty trail in front of me (surrounded by pretty colored trees!) and pushed off. I smiled when I easily clipped my shoes into the pedal. And then everything else seemed to click. As the trail rolled in front of me, my bike felt smooth and…..like freedom. I felt free. Completely free. My head cleared, the endorphins kicked in, my heart strongly pumped. I couldn’t stop the smile spreading across my face. Slowly the anxiety slipped away as the miles increased. I practiced clipping in and out of the pedals. I caught up to and passed other bikers. I rode alongside another biker who gave some helpful tips. I biked my mileage goal, then added five more, then a few more…because I could. I didn’t want to stop. I eventually did of course. And I tucked this feeling of accomplishment and freedom into my heart and mind, to recall when I need a confidence boost in the future.
Lots of people ride bikes, including lots of bone cancer survivors. So while I don’t consider myself any more special than any of those people, I count these small victories. Because they are victories for me. My biggest struggle with being a cancer survivor is the physical restrictions from the titanium rod in my femur, which in turn sometimes causes mental frustration and anxiety. Yes, I am incredibly grateful to have both of my own legs. I know the alternative so I appreciate that I had this option. I also know that I do more physically than some people who never had my surgery. But I’m human and can admit I sometimes get frustrated. Because I know before cancer I was able to do so much more. So biking 10, 20, 30+ miles on my new bike is a victory for me. Heck, getting up on a bike and pedaling a few feet is sometimes the best accomplishment of the day. I plan to enjoy every minute that I’m able to be ride my bike, hike in the woods, whatever I choose to do. I will enjoy every minute that I walk on my own two legs. For these are victories for me. And I choose to celebrate every little victory.