Riding to hope
Tour of Hope brings cancer awareness to Durango

A cyclist pedals through the valley near the Animas River bridge on Trimble Lane earlier this week. This Sunday morning, 20 riders from the Tour of Hope, a cross-country road ride to raise awareness for cancer reasearch, will stop in Durango./Photo by Todd Newcomer

The first time her doctors diagnosed her with cancer, Carol Smith didn't believe it. It wasn't a reaction of shock, but rather genuine doubt. It turns out, she was right. The second time, she wasn't.

Less than a year ago, 46-year-old Smith learned she had chronic myeloid leukemia, a rare form of bone marrow cancer. She immediately faced the likelihood of having a bone marrow transplant, which historically has been the medical course for patients in the chronic stage. The transplant is risky, having a 50 percent mortality rate and a reputation for taking an extremely unhealthy toll on the body's organs – ones that are otherwise healthy.

She also would have undergone countless chemotherapy treatments, a treatment so harsh that it kills everything in its path regardless of disease status. So, Smith's future was daunting.

It's at this point in Smith's story where she trumpets the actions of people who financially support cancer drug research and talks excitingly about the significance of a group of cyclists that will arrive in Durango on Sunday on a cross-country bike tour to raise this kind of awareness.

After pedaling all night from the Grand Canyon, a 20-member team will arrive at Morehart Subaru on Sunday morning to rally as part of the Tour of Hope. The tour is a weeklong 3,500-mile ride from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., put on by drug manufacturer Bristol-Myers Squibb, with the help of cycling great Lance Armstrong.

Local cancer survivor Carol Smith
stands outside her Durango office on
Tuesday. Less than a year ago, Smith, 46, learned she had a rare form of leukemia. But thanks to the results of a clinical drug trial two years ago, she was able to take a new medication instead of going through a risky bone marrow transplant. Her cancer appears to be heading into remission./ Photo by Todd Newcomer

Armstrong, who won his sixth Tour de France this year, survived cancer – in part because of the drugs made by Bristol-Myers Squibb. It started out as testicular cancer, but soon aggressively spread to Armstrong's brain and lungs. Since going into remission and returning to professional cycling, Armstrong has become an active and outspoken advocate and fund raiser for cancer research. Much of that research is done during clinical drug trials, when medical professionals test new and more effective cancer antidotes.

Part of Armstrong's work off the bike includes participating in the annual Tour of Hope, which draws on cancer survivors from all parts of the country to hop on their bikes and spin thousands of miles to share their stories of survivorship. If cyclists aren't cancer survivors, they are physicians, nurses, researchers or caregivers. The stories are personal, painful and promising.

Smith, a technical support specialist for the City of Durango, is enthusiastic about such endeavors because the results of a clinical drug trial two years ago lead to a new medication on the market for the treatment of the type of leukemia that afflicts her. (Her previous cancer scare turned out to be a benign kidney tumor.)

“For me, it was actually and truly a lifesaver,” Smith says.

She was able to forego an unpleasant bone marrow transplant and instead take a pill that acts as a form of chemotherapy. Instead of enduring months of intravenous dosing that would kill even healthy cells, Smith takes 1BD pills per day that doctors know are killing only her unhealthy cells, nothing else.

The drug is expensive – nearly $4,000 per month – but Smith calls it a “huge breakthrough.” When her doctors tested Smith's initial blood cells, 72 percent of her white blood cells were abnormal. Today, only 4 percent are abnormal.

“This is the hopeful thing about a drug like this,” Smith says. “Doctors are starting to get 4 away from types of chemo that kill everything, allowing people to lead more normal lives while being treated.”

Katie Walsh opted for a similar treatment to beat her cancer. Walsh, a 45-year-old substitute teacher, yoga instructor and fund-raiser, has been free of cancer for 1BD years. In May 2003, her doctors found cancer in her breast. For the exceedingly active Walsh, it was a tremendous blow.

“I made my doctor go back to the hospital and check the results to make sure they were actually mine,” Walsh says.

Unfortunately, they were.

A normally optimistic Walsh was crushed. Immediately, she began shopping for wigs, prematurely assuming she'd undergo months of chemotherapy that would cause her hair to fall out. She had experience with this, after all.

Walsh's father had colon cancer, which eventually spread to his lymph nodes. He underwent aggressive treatment and actually beat it, having remained in remission for 10 years before he passed away last summer. Seeing her father so ill prompted Walsh to slow down and consider her alternatives.

After undergoing a lumpectomy, Walsh opted to continue the treatment with radiation and a pill form of chemotherapy that targeted only her cancer cells. It worked.

She also examined her attitude toward the disease.

“I took it as an opportunity to grow through instead of go through,” she says. “Attitude is key for survivorship. I think it's important for people to take responsibility for what they can, not sit back and be a victim of the disease.”

Ultimately, her approach to dealing with cancer changed her outlook on her competitive spirit. An avid cyclist, Walsh stopped racing her bike and started “riding” it. She realized that the competition aspect was causing her to simply endure an event instead of enjoy it.

It also compelled her to become a cancer research advocate by using her bike. After finishing a daily two-month regimen of radiation in March, Walsh began her involvement with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the cyclist's nonprofit advocacy group. The Foundation's Peloton Project has members raise funds for cancer research, providing incentives along the way.

As a member, Walsh hosted a 4

Durango screening of a behind-the-scenes documentary of the Tour de France this Spring. She raised $5,000. For that, Walsh will participate at the Foundation's annual Ride for the Roses event in Austin, Texas, next week. The event, reserved for fund-raisers meeting a specific goal, she'll mingle with other cancer survivors and supporters.

Walsh is also helping put on the Durango rally for the Tour of Hope this weekend – an event she says will allow her to support others who may have gone through similar ordeals as hers.

“I'll be able to connect with them on an emotional level, because we all have that same sense of shock we went through in finding out about our cancer,” Walsh explains.

She will also relish in being among others who, like her, made a conscious choice to survive the disease and learn about personal strength.

“Most cancer survivors say they wouldn't change it and not have gone through it,” Walsh says, including herself.

She and Smith attribute this, of course, to support from friends and family. Smith says her endurance comes also from her faith in God. But she never discounts the necessity for cancer research to continue so that, she says, others can have as much success in healing as she has.

“I want people to understand that their contributions to cancer research are going somewhere. They are doing things with that money.”

She cites her own story as proof. Her prognosis, she says, is “extremely good” and her doctor is “thrilled” with the speed and extent of her progress. Though Smith doesn't know how she became sick with her type of chronic leukemia, which medical professionals claim is caused by environmental toxins, she doesn't go back to try to figure it out.

“I have every reason to hope that soon there won't be any sign of it, hopefully as early as in a couple of months.”







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