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Like Lance, they live and ride strong

Pedal for 3,300 miles? No problem for these cancer survivors who are joining researchers, doctors and nurses in the Tour of Hope relay.

October 03, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

A century ride is a cyclist's equivalent of a runner's marathon, a demanding 100-mile bike ride that can take seven hours or longer to complete. In the span of nine days, Meg Berte plans to complete no fewer than eight such treks, all with lungs so scarred following her cancer treatments that they operate at only about 50% of capacity.

Berte is among 25 cyclists participating in this week's Tour of Hope, a bicycling relay from San Diego to Washington, D.C. While the 3,300-mile journey is primarily designed to call attention to cancer clinical trials, prevention, detection and research, it also will dramatize the conditioning of 15 participants who are cancer survivors. These are people who typically were so sick that they couldn't conceive of walking across their hospital rooms, let alone pedaling across the country.

Like cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, the Tour of Hope's figurehead leader and for many of its riders an inspiration, these cancer patients have set out to prove that a cancer diagnosis can open a new window onto fitness, yielding physical strength far greater than before their diagnosis. Instead of simply eating better and getting regular exercise as part of their recovery, these riders have given their post-cancer bodies an extreme makeover, undertaking a ride that even advanced recreational cyclists would labor to complete.

"I never in a million years thought I would be on a bike again," said Berte, a 33-year-old former collegiate soccer player who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease in 1995. She lost 30 pounds following a stem cell transplant, was jaundiced and didn't have the strength to get out of bed.

"My doctors told me I would never do any competitive sports. But I read so much about Lance and what he has accomplished physically. To me, and to so many cancer survivors, especially athletes, we look to Lance and see that there are no limits," Berte said.

In 1998, following a recurrence of Berte's illness, both of her lungs collapsed, and the resulting scar tissue cut her breathing capacity in half. Berte said she feels particularly winded when climbing hills. "I am definitely not the strongest rider," she said. "But I am in really good shape."

She'd better be.

Working in four teams, the Tour of Hope riders -- cancer survivors, physicians, researchers, nurses and relatives of cancer patients and victims -- will alternate cycling, sleeping and shuttling to the next starting point. Some teams will enjoy flat Texas roads in the cool of early morning; others will endure steep Carolina mountains in full afternoon heat.

Even with the benefit of drafting behind another cyclist, a rider averaging 18 mph might expend more than 3,000 calories on a single segment. Some of the Tour of Hope legs are as long as stages in the Tour de France.

"I would even say that the Tour de France for us is easier than this will be for them," said Armstrong, who will accompany the riders at various junctures in the Bristol-Myers Squibb-sponsored event. "This is incredibly inspiring, because it is incredibly difficult for them. The guys on the Tour are so well trained. The best guys -- they don't suffer like I suspect the Tour of Hope people are going to suffer." In pushing themselves so strenuously, these cancer survivors are living out an emerging field of research suggesting that rather than take it easy, cancer patients should actually step up their physical activity. Against his doctor's advice, Armstrong himself got back on his bike, riding up to 50 miles in the midst of his chemotherapy.

"Exercise is one of the most important things people can do both during and after their treatment," said Anna L. Schwartz, a researcher at Arizona State University and the author of the 2004 book "Cancer Fitness: Exercise Programs for Patients and Survivors." "There is a growing body of literature that suggests fitness reduces your risk for recurrence," Schwartz said, adding that cancer patients who exercise vigorously also can reduce fatigue, strengthen bones, relieve anxiety and boost self-esteem.

An active cyclist in remission from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Schwartz rode in the inaugural Tour of Hope in 2003. "For me, cancer gave me intensity and concentration and enthusiasm. If I was going to do something, I was going to do it 100%," Schwartz said.

"When people are diagnosed, their first impression is 'Oh my God, I am going to die,' " said Armstrong, who recovered from testicular cancer to win the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times. "Over time, they lose that impression. They get the confidence back, they know they are going to live, they get back to life, they get back to work and they get back to exercise.

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