Bikes Kill Cancer

By: Jay Middleton

A person sitting on a couch recovering from a bilateral neck dissection to remove cancerous lymph nodes from their neck as the pandemic unfolds across the nation can get a lot of thinking done.

I know because this person was me. Just a few months before I had finished a bike tour through Tuscany with my wife, returned to the states just as the snowboard season was ramping up and I was enjoying the final weeks of my 50th year on earth when I was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Thanks to the human papillomavirus, which until this point in my life I thought only caused cervical cancer, my life was being turned upside down.

Now post-surgery pre-radiation treatment, I was sitting on my sofa under strict orders from my doctor “To take it easy. If you’re bored out of your mind you’re doing recovery correctly.”

So there I was recovering and doing lots of thinking.

I believe that a lot of people in my situation who find themselves battling, recuperating and in general having their lives upended by cancer take time to pause and think about their lives. I know I did. From my sofa of recuperation I spent a lot of time contemplating what was next for me. 

I must have felt pretty confident that I was going to win this battle with cancer. I had yet to even begin my six weeks of daily radiation treatment as I needed to heal from the surgery before the doctors began blasting my neck and head with radiation, but I was already hatching a plan for what was next. 

I am no Socrates of the Sofa, but this is what I came up with while thinking about my life and how to live it going forward…

  • I will make riding my bike and being outside in nature a priority.
  • I will share my cancer journey with others and become an advocate for HPV vaccines.
  • I will ride my bike to make a difference.

The first bullet point was actually pretty easy. As an avid cyclist, camper and snowboarder, I very rarely found myself lacking motivation to get outside. The challenge for me as I moved through my treatment was finding the energy and stamina to continue to ride. The recovery from surgery and the ongoing radiation treatments had worn my body down. I had to start from ground zero with short walks around the neighborhood. On the day of my 30th and last radiation treatment, I rode 30 miles to mark the milestone. I spent the rest of the day in bed sleeping off the effort.

Much harder than riding through my cancer journey was actually writing about it. My wife will tell you that over the last couple of years, I’ve become more open, willing to share and even cry. It wasn’t like that at first. I felt a bit weird and awkward chronicling my journey and feelings. Then hitting ‘enter’ and instantly revealing myself to anyone who wanted to take the time to read about it. This was the genesis for my blog and ‘gram, Bikes Kill Cancer.

Now, three plus years from my cancer diagnosis I am standing in downtown Leadville shivering in the cold morning air waiting for the start of the Leadville 100 MTB. I look down at my handlebars to see the words I have inked onto a piece of tape stuck to my handlebars, “For Chris. Don’t Stop.”

Veiled in the fog of the pandemic and my own cancer journey, it often feels as if time has bent, twisted and folded in on itself. I can remember with incredible clarity the feeling of my radiation mask being locked down to the table everyday during my treatment, yet often have trouble remembering how we celebrated the holidays that year. 

I do remember my bike rides and the promise I made to myself as I slow pedaled through radiation treatment.

The promise was simple, “when I am done with these treatments I’m going to ride my bike to help make a difference.” That summer as my radiation sores slowly healed, I began the process of trying to give back. With the help of a friend, we designed a Bikes Kill Cancer logo and had stickers printed to sell and raise money for the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center. I rode from my home in Littleton, CO to the top Mt. Evans (one of the two 14’ers in Colorado that have a paved road to the top) and back. A 120 mile round trip bike ride that raised over $5,000 for the Fred Hutch Cancer Center.

After coming out of the gate hot and full of purpose for the first time in a long time, I found myself adrift. After 25 years in the outdoor industry, I had decided to change careers, but with no real plan on how to do it, much less what I wanted to do. 2020 was all about fighting cancer. 2021 was all about figuring out what was next for me. Some people say cancer changes you. I would argue that it doesn’t change you as much as it gives you time to pause and reevaluate your life. 

Some people say cancer changes you. I would argue that it doesn’t change you as much as it gives you pause and time to reevaluate your life. 

With support from my wife, friends and family, and even complete strangers, I somehow came out the other end with a new career, a refocused energy and found myself reconnecting with old friends including Chris. While not a cyclist himself, Chris was a former collegiate runner and still had a deep love for all things sports. He could talk football (American or English) as easily as he could the Tour de France. 

The last weekend of July in Austin, reconnecting with Chris, hanging out with his brother, Aaron, one of my best friends felt good. My new job with Habitat for Humanity Metro Denver has just started and the good times felt easy like they often do when old friends get together. I had no idea that a year later Aaron would be telling me that Chris had decided to forgo any more treatments for his cancer and would be entering hospice. 

Writing “For Chris. Don’t Stop” on my handlebars didn’t feel like enough, but Aaron and Chris confirmed that it was “fucking awesome.” Not sure I could have asked for a more definitive confirmation.

And so now I was lining up for Leadville. This is how I can ride and make a difference I thought. Maybe not for Chris, but those who will come after him. “For Chris” was my inspiration, my motivation, but the young adults battling cancer and MS were my hope. Hope that they would find power in themselves, that nature and adventure would provide them a reprise from their worries and fears and most of all joy in their hearts.

Me, Aaron and Chris pictured above.

“For Chris. Don’t Stop.”



Join the Out Living It Project

What is the Out Living It Project? The Out Living It Project is where community, creativity and philanthropy collide. By joining the Out Living It Project, you’ll join more than 500 FD fundraisers who are passionately extending the healing power of adventure to thousands of young adults (18-45) impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions. Plan your own adventure or join one of our feature Team FD events like the Leadville 100 MTB Race. Head to firstdescents.org/out-living-it-project/ to learn more.

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