By JUSTIN CRIADO
The National Cancer Institute estimates more than 1.6 million people will receive the sobering news this year that they have the disease.
A disease that doesn’t discriminate can turn anyone in to a victim.
The 23 Team Portland riders know that all too well. They are taking part in the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults’ “4k for Cancer” initiative.
Each team member has been affected by cancer in some way, and is taking part in the 4,000-mile, 70-day ride across the country to raise awareness and money – presenting scholarships to survivors along the way.
“In 70 days, we go back to our normal lives,” team co-director Alex Azar, 21, of Wanaque, N.J., said. “For a lot of (cancer patients), it’s not a 70-day trip.”
The team stayed overnight Wednesday and Thursday at Round Hill Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth Township after a 66-mile trek from Confluence, Pa., via the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail through West Newton.
It left Friday for East Liverpool, Ohio.
“It’s so beautiful,” team co-director Francesca Genoese, 21, of Lancaster, Pa., said of the scenery. “We got here and just all laid on the lawn and watched the sunset.”
Cancer survivor Megan McKenzie, 21, of Somerset County was awarded a $2,500 scholarship and an official Team Portland riding shirt signed by the team during a get-together Thursday at Round Hill Park. The money will help with her classes at Allegany College of Maryland.
After being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Thanksgiving Day 2012, McKenzie was cancer-free within a year. But by the next holiday, the symptoms returned.
“It wasn’t really a fight-or-flight kind of moment,” McKenzie said. “It was just fight. There was no point in giving up.
“A lot of people call me crazy, but I think it was a blessing in disguise because my life has changed drastically.”
She cited her Aunt Kathy and first love, Clifford, who died from cancer in 2010 and 2013, respectively, as her main sources of strength throughout chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
McKenzie has been in remission since 2015, and plans to become an oncology social worker.
“I want to work with children and young adults going through cancer because I feel like I can relate,” McKenzie said. “I can give from my own experience.”
The ride, which started in Baltimore, Md., will end in Portland, Ore., crossing through the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains along the way.
It’s one of four cross-country bike rides this year that departed from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Other teams are heading to San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle.
While teams have come through the area in previous years, the decision to stop in Elizabeth was based on the unavailability of a previous host in Clairton.
“We find it very energizing, and it steps us out of our comfort zone seeing what’s going on nationally instead of our own little community,” church volunteer Eileen Russell said.
Other than a place to sleep, the church provided meals, and riders were able to freshen up at the Mon-Vale HealthPLEX in Rostraver Township.
Traveling eight to 10 hours a day for about 100 miles can be mentally grueling, but that’s why the group starts each morning by writing the name of a cancer survivor on their calves, Azar explained.
“Our legs are where we draw our strength from,” Azar said.
Participating in her first 4k, Genoese said her father, Francesco, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a young man and beat it, has always inspired her.
“He’s such an amazing man,” she said. “… I wanted to go on an adventure this summer, and I wanted to make it meaningful.”
The Ulman fund is based in Baltimore and began to sponsor 4k rides in 2012 after taking over the grassroots efforts of Johns Hopkins University students.
Riders must apply for spots on a team and go through a year-long interview process, Team Portland ride coordinator Skylar Marcoux explained from her office in Baltimore.
Once selected, each rider is responsible for fundraising at least $4,500.
“Our mission is to unite communities across the country to give them support, hope and inspiration as they’re going through a cancer diagnosis or supporting a loved one,” Marcoux said.