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Why I Rode Through Cancer

A man with cancer in his spine bike commutes to radiation therapy.

“You’ll wear a helmet, right?”My new bike commuting plans concerned my oncology nurse, and I knew she wouldn’t be the only one. I hadn’t yet summoned the courage to tell my wife, close friends, or the Boston surgeon who’d soon be operating on me. Absolutely, I promised her, I’d wear a helmet.
Frankly I was amused at how thrilling it felt to climb aboard a Hubway bike share bike a few days later at Boston’s North Station. It was early October. There would’ve been a time I’d have considered the 40-pound-plus Hubway clunky and slow. But that was before a doctor’s visit in late summer, the discovery of an advanced tumor residing in and outside my lower spine, and the waiver release I signed for a radical treatment plan involving three types of radiation and multiday surgery. The bike share bike—extra forgiving with balloon tires and a wide, soft seat, step-thru framed for grannies and grade-schoolers, and no more aesthetically appealing than an evening tray of hospital food—was my beautiful savior.
The ride-to-radiation plan, as I conceived it, would be a unique multimodal commute. I’d take the suburban train for the 20-or-so mile leg from my home in Beverly, then use the bike to shuttle between the station and Massachusetts General Hospital’s Francis H. Burr Proton Beam Therapy Center. It was short and sweet but it wasn’t necessarily without complication in my condition. I was learning that my spine was even more fragile than it felt. Doctors said the part of the tumor lodged in my L3 vertebra was pressing against spinal nerves. For months, especially after long rides, I’d been experiencing the symptoms—shooting pain and numbness in my legs—but it could get much worse. Honestly, they said, in reviewing scans they weren’t sure why it hadn’t already. If it did, they’d need to abort radiation for emergency surgery. My five weeks of daily radiation, they emphasized, were crucial to a successful outcome

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