On National Cancer Survivors Day, 15.5 million people in the U.S. are celebrating life after cancer. I’m one of them. Today, June 4, 2017, is sandwiched between two important milestones in my life – the 20th anniversary of my third cancer diagnosis, which I received on June 2, 1997 and my 40th birthday, which I’ll celebrate on June 7th.
More than half my life has now been spent as a cancer survivor.
It was in the fall of 1996 that I first heard the words, “You have cancer.” I was a sophomore at Brown University, and a member of the school’s soccer team. My diagnosis was chondrosarcoma, a bone cancer that develops in cartilage. In the 10 months that followed, two more diagnoses followed – each with melanoma.
My oncology team speculated about the cause – possibly a yet-to-be discovered genetic marker that led to three diagnoses in less than a year. Hopefully, advancements in research will one day – perhaps sooner than I think – lead me to an answer.
While that was a frightening and trying time, the experience awoke in me a desire to change the world, specifically as it relates to this disease. Cancer is a hard way to learn there are no certainties in life. But from that tough lesson, I also learned about adaptability and being open to new experiences.
As a 20-year-old, I found myself caught between pediatric and geriatric cancer wards. But I was no longer a child and decades away from being a senior. The gap in support for adolescent and young adults facing cancer led my family and me to start the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults in my hometown of Columbia, MD. Today, the Ulman Fund works at both the local and national level to ensure that all young adults impacted by cancer have a voice and the necessary resources to thrive. In fact, to commemorate its 20th anniversary, later this year the Ulman Fund will open the Ulman House, a place where six vacant row homes in East Baltimore are being converted into eight family suites for young adult cancer survivors and their families to live during treatment.
If someone had told me upon my diagnosis that I would one day voluntarily – even proudly – wear an outward symbol of my survivorship, I would not have believed them. But that day came in 2004 with the advent of the LIVESTRONG wristband, which rapidly became a worldwide symbol of support for cancer survivors and to date has generated $100 million to serve cancer survivors. This philanthropic phenomenon was led by the LIVESTRONG Foundation, where I gratefully served as its first-ever director of survivorship beginning in 2000 and later as its President and CEO, helping to build a powerful movement on behalf of cancer survivors worldwide.
In 2014, that movement led me to Columbus, Ohio, where I’m honored to serve as President and CEO of Pelotonia, a grassroots organization that has raised $130 million for cancer research at Ohio State through its annual bike ride.
This is the time of year when our community shifts into high gear with their fundraising and training for our landmark event in August. As my 40th birthday approaches and my “survivor” status embarks on its third decade, I’m finding renewed inspiration and motivation in Pelotonia Riders who are at different stages of their survivorship:
· There’s Brian, age 22, who within the past year has been treated for bone cancer. He’s set an audacious goal to ride 55 miles in August. His athletic endeavor reminds me of the approach I took following my treatment and one I’d recommend to other young adults in the early stage of survivorship – take an action that empowers you.
· There’s Susan, a 20+ year survivor of melanoma who has ridden in Pelotonia all nine years. We share the philosophy of the “obligation of the cured” – a commitment to keep fighting for others affected by cancer.
· And there’s Bradley, a three-time cancer survivor of nearly 40 years and true pioneer of survivorship. He gives me hope of what’s possible for us cancer survivors – 20, 40 and even 60 years down the road.
It’s exciting to imagine what advances will have been made in cancer care 20 years from now – How many cancers will be curable? And how many cancers will just be chronic diseases controlled like high blood pressure? Will I know by then what caused my cancer?
There are so many questions yet to be answered. But one thing I know for sure is that the work of today’s Pelotonia community is making a difference – for current and future generations. Since its inception in 2008, Pelotonia has succeeded in funding and awarding 99 idea grants, 405 fellowships, and support for 79 senior scientists. In addition, we are especially proud of Pelotonia’s funding of two important statewide initiatives for colon and lung cancer – already estimated to have saved hundreds of lives – and for the clinical trial of Ibrutinib, which was discovered to be a miracle drug for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia patients. But our work doesn’t stop there.
In the two decades since my diagnoses, we have seen cancer deaths in the United States decrease by more than 2.1 million thanks to reductions in smoking and improvements in early detection, research and treatment. While that progress is encouraging, we still lose 1,650 Americans every day to cancer.
At Pelotonia, our mission is focused on getting that number to zero. Our goal? End cancer. We hope you’ll join us. All are welcome.
Doug Ulman is a three-time cancer survivor and a widely acclaimed and globally recognized social entrepreneur. He is the President and CEO of Pelotonia, a grassroots organization that has raised more than $130 million for cancer research at The Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Pelotonia ’17 is a three-day experience of cycling, entertainment and volunteerism, Aug. 4-6, in Columbus, Ohio that benefits cancer research at Ohio State. Learn more at www.pelotonia.org.