By Dawn Balmer

200 K Bike Ride to Niagara Falls
June 13/14, 2009

It was Saturday morning, June 13th and I was really nervous. My name is Dawn Balmer and I am an endurance runner, but riding my bike from Toronto to Niagara Falls, to raise funds and awareness to conquer cancer. I am a survivor.

Despite all of the endurance events that I have completed in the past, chemotherapy had quite literally knocked the wind out of me. I still get out of breath and tire easily. My nickname is Nanook – I have always been very sensitive to the cold and since my chemotherapy treatments, I feel the cold even more. This makes training very difficult, as I am dressed in layers of clothing. Being all bundled up prevented me from training properly and I was not confident I could actually complete the ride.

At the start of the 200k bike ride, I felt the familiar surge of adrenaline as I looked around at the sea of riders. It was comforting to know that Doug (a long time friend and marathon training partner) would be riding with me. The riders around me were all different ages, shapes and sizes and many were riding bikes that were not designed for long distances. It emphasized the fact that this was an event for raising awareness about cancer.

My nerves settled down as we cycled along the Lakeshore with the frequent stops and starts due to traffic. As we left the city, the riders started to spread out. I had a yellow survivor flag attached to my bike and many riders would say encouraging words as we passed. Similarly, as I rode alongside other survivors, we would briefly exchange stories. One man rode with an empty child seat on the back of his bike, to represent his 2 year old son undergoing chemo.

There were quite a few riders with pictures or names of loved ones on their shirts. It is a disease that impacts the lives of so many people and their families. There were frequent rest stops with food and a chance to fill up water bottles (and of course use a port-a-potty). The first day lunch was at the 70 km mark. I knew at that point I would at least make it through day one, even though there were rain clouds looming. After only a few raindrops fell, we were heading towards Hamilton and the infamous ‘hill’. At first, we mostly coasted down in the city. Normally cycling downhill is pleasant but there was that nagging feeling that what goes down must go up. As indeed it did! Although it was a seemingly endless hill and I passed many people walking their bikes, it was a gradual enough incline that I made it to the top without stopping! Doug, despite our agreement to meet at the top, kept checking that I was OK. It was an apt metaphor for friends helping you overcome hurdles (especially cancer) in life!

It was a giant party when we made it to Mohawk College and the end of a 105 km day of riding. The fatigue was replaced with excitement (of course the free beer probably helped) as riders exchanged stories with friends, both old and new. We shared a dinner table with a group of people from London. As we discussed our reasons for riding, we discovered that we all knew my daughter’s friend who had died of leukemia (he was in his fourth year of university). His memory is a reminder of why this event is so important.

Sunday was warm, bright and sunny, although I still wore a long sleeve shirt. The first 50 km were fairly flat and meandered along a route that included some spectacular scenery. Surprisingly, I was not as sore as I had expected to be. It was one of those days that you are glad to be alive! My days of being in post chemo “zombieland” were over and I was on an incredible high. We had started at 8:00 A.M. and were at the 50km mark by 10:30! I was flying!

The next 25km were more hilly and included one long, steep hill that this time I did have to walk, along with just about everyone else. It was hard and I was getting tired. But it wasn’t nearly as hard or tiring as going through chemo and I knew that I could tough it out and complete the ride. During the last 25km, Doug slowed the pace down and kept checking to see if I needed a break, but I wanted to finish the ride, so we skipped the last break station.

As we neared Niagara Falls, the cheers from the spectators helped lift my spirits and take away the aches. It was exhilarating to cross the finish line and hear the announcer say – “here comes another survivor”. The finish area was a mass of riders, their friends and families. The party atmosphere was phenomenal. It was difficult to move through the bikes and people. It was hard to hear because of the announcer, cheering, music and excited babble of people talking. We finally found Doug’s wife, Jonquil and my husband Jim, despite the throngs of people. Thank heavens for cell phones. I was tired, sore and thirsty but I felt fantastic! A month ago, the doctor told me that the CAT scan was clear, but it didn’t seem real. Crossing that finish line, I finally felt like I was once again my old self, not a cancer patient, but an endurance athlete!

I was able to enter this ride because of the financial support of so many, and I would like to thank you for your contribution towards the fight to conquer cancer. But just as important, was the emotional support I have had during my journey with cancer and I wish to thank all those who were there for me. It has been almost a year to the day since I first heard those terrifying words – “you have cancer”. It has been a long, difficult ‘ride’, but I constantly had people by my side helping me through it. My Mom stayed with me through every treatment and my zombie days. My daughters, Sarah and Diana, constantly phoned to check on me when they couldn’t be with me. Jim encouraged me with plans for where we would travel when I was better. Family and friends baked cookies, made soup, phoned and sent cards, flowers and emails.

During those times on my bike coasting downhill, it is easy to take life for granted, but when you are struggling uphill, it makes you really appreciate the people in your life. Thank you for helping me in my battle to conquer cancer!

Update – October 17, 2009

It is almost 8 months since my last chemotherapy treatment. So far the results of all my tests have been good news! I am back to work full time teaching high school science and biology. In the past, I always emphasized the health and fitness components of the curriculum to my students, but now I have cancer related stories that demonstrate the real life applications of what students are learning.

I still find that I am not back to my full pre-cancer energy, but I continue to try to make exercising a priority. Even though I cannot run as far, as fast or as often as I used to, every time I run, I appreciate the fact that I am able to run. (The days of being out of breath at the top of a flight of stairs are still vivid.) On September 27, I completed the Waterfront Half Marathon (21.1k) – much slower than previous years, but crossing the finish line was another win in my battle against cancer. I will be training this winter to run a full marathon in the spring.

During the summer, I went on the trip that has always been on the top of my “bucket list”. My daughter and I toured the Galapagos Islands. During the chemo days, the thought of this trip helped keep me positive. It was an awe inspiring experience that lived up to all my expectations.

Thank you for letting me share my experiences with you, the reader. Having cancer makes you appreciate the importance of “live, love, laugh and grow”. Keep up the great work helping others.