Cancer survivorship and the sport of cycling have become increasingly linked. Seven-time Tour de France champion and testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong is largely responsible, as his story and his Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LiveSTRONG® campaign have promoted the sport and inspired survivors to continue or begin riding. But just as significant in the cycling-survivor trend are the survivors themselves, who have pedaled their way through treatment and recovery, finding that continuing the sport they love in spite of a diagnosis is a source of long-term health and happiness.
Although there are many reasons for cycling’s general popularity and for its particular appeal to cancer survivors, one of the sport’s foremost draws is that it’s accessible, in some form, to a wide range of people regardless of previous athletic experience. With alternatives to the standard two-wheeler that include recumbent (where the rider sits in a reclined position), stationary, and tandem bikes and even adult-size tricycles, many riders are able to find a form of cycling to accommodate their physical abilities.
Why Choose Cycling?
A lifetime sport. With the right setup—including proper clothing and a bike that fits well—riders can enjoy cycling throughout their lives, explains Craig Broeder, PhD, an exercise physiologist and an avid cyclist. If you choose manageable terrain and have a bike with low-resistance gears, you don’t need a lot of strength to ride, and you won’t experience the wear and tear of higher-impact sports like running. “You can cycle into your nineties,” says Dr. Broeder, who adds that because exercise is critical to longevity, choosing an activity that you can maintain as you age can promote long-term health.
Post-treatment appeal. When performed at an appropriate level, cycling’s gentle nature can appeal to survivors as they return to activity following treatment, says Genné McDonald, a physical therapist who specializes in women’s health and oncology. Cycling was critical in Genné’s own recovery from breast cancer. “What biking has meant in my own recovery is huge,” she says. She rode throughout treatment but most appreciated her time in the saddle after undergoing reconstruction. “Biking was one of the few things that I could do that didn’t put a lot of strain on my breast reconstruction.” Genné explains that because riding doesn’t require weight bearing it can be a great choice for survivors, as “there’s not a lot of ballistic force on the tissues of your body.” (Be aware, however, that individual cases vary, and certain side effects of treatment may limit or alter your ability to ride a bike. This is discussed more below.)
Fun and freedom. Health-related benefits aside, the real allures of riding a bike are the fun and the thrill of covering miles under your own power. For survivors, who may feel that they’ve lost control over their bodies during treatment, this thrill is even more profound. “When you get on a bike and you can cover miles almost like you never had all these surgeries, it makes you feel whole again,” says Genné.
How to Get Started
The bike. If you’ve ever browsed a bike shop, you know that your choices of bike styles and technical options are practically endless. But don’t be intimidated: it doesn’t need to be so technical. Jacquie Phelan, a former national mountain bike champion and self-described feminist cycling champion, encourages women considering the sport to simply “find a bike and try riding it.”
If you’re hooked and want to invest in a new bike, Dr. Broeder suggests that you determine your goals—such as riding to the coffee shop, commuting, or touring—and whether you want to ride on roads, trails, or both. A local bike shop can help you choose the appropriate equipment. And, Dr. Broeder adds, make comfort a priority, as this will make your initial rides more enjoyable.
A bike shop can also outfit you for your new sport. A high-quality helmet that fits well is essential, and, depending on how much you plan to ride, you’ll also want to consider shoes, padded bike shorts, appropriate layers for the climate (a windbreaker and a rain jacket are always smart choices), and a way to carry water. But, again, don’t let the equipment list intimidate you: really, if you have a bike you like and a good helmet, you’re set to start pedaling.
Safety. A properly fitting helmet should be worn anytime you’re on your bike, even for short distances.
You can make riding safer—and lot more fun—by choosing less congested roads and paths. Be prepared, however, when you do encounter traffic, as you may on even the quietest routes. “Never look down!” says Jacquie. “That will improve your safety immediately,” as you’ll be aware of what you’re approaching and what’s coming toward you. If you need to fix or inspect something, stop to do so. Dr. Broeder suggests that you practice stopping and getting on and off your bike in a safe place such as driveway or lawn.
When it comes to on-bike safety, Jacquie reminds riders to “honor your inner chicken,” meaning that it’s okay to be fearful on occasion and not to let that discourage you. Get off and walk your bike if you feel particularly afraid—it’s more important to return home safely and be ready to ride the next day.
Join the club! As you get started, you may enjoy the company, support, and expertise of other women cyclists. Many women’s cycling clubs encourage riders of all levels, with more-experienced riders functioning as mentors or “personal big sisters,” as Jacquie puts it. You’re likely to find answers to all of your cycling-related questions through your network of big sisters. Jacquie’s own WOMBATS (Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society, www.wombats.org), based in northern California, has been socializing and hosting regular rides and clinics since 1984. (For more reasons to join a women’s cycling group, see our sidebar, “Team Effort.”) Whatever inspires you to get out the door and down the road—the desire for exercise, social time, or the joy of trying something new—have fun and enjoy this great sport.
Special Considerations for Survivors
If you’re recovering from cancer treatment, you’ll want to consider the following before you begin riding, according to physical therapist and breast cancer survivor Genné McDonald:
- Have you undergone chemotherapy? Because chemotherapy can cause cardiac side effects, survivors who have received such treatment should discuss all physical activity, including cycling, with their oncologist.
- Has treatment affected your balance? “Cancer survivors need to be careful of balance,” says Genné. “A lot of chemotherapies can affect sensation in the hands and feet,” she says. Survivors with compromised balance, however, can still ride: “They can get on a recumbent or a stationary bike and start there.”
- Has treatment affected a part of your body that will challenge your ability to ride a bike? Whether or not a survivor can ride during or immediately following treatment will vary by the individual, diagnosis, and area of the body treated. For example, explains Genné, “For some women who have had breast reconstruction, the weight of their hands on the handlebars may be an issue,” and cancers requiring radiation lower in the body (such as cervical cancer) may affect a survivor’s ability to sit on a bike seat.
- Is your range of motion limited? “Any areas of the body that have received radiation therapy may have lost their normal range of motion and flexibility,” explains Genné. This may affect leg motion and the ability to grip the handlebars. But, she adds, “Those issues can usually be treated with physical therapy.”
Don’t forget to…
- Pump up your tires before you ride.
- Be prepared to change a tire. (Carry a spare tube, patch kit, and pump. Ask a bike shop or club for instruction.)
Sister cyclists support a survivor’s ride through recovery.
Another special attribute of cycling is the opportunity for camaraderie that the sport offers. “Cyclists tend to look out for one another and help each other out,” says survivor Cyndi Litzko, of Granite Bay, California, who attended weekly rides with her women’s cycling club, the Bella Fiores, throughout eight rounds of chemotherapy for breast cancer. “It was really critical to me to show up and make that ride,” she says, describing the weekly outing as “a huge part of my healing process.” Cyndi also found that support from her cycling community extended beyond the bike: “They did laundry service for me, and they supplied meals.”
Cyndi rides with another women’s team, the Bodacious Biking Babes, who have also supported her through treatment. They celebrated her survival with a 100-mile ride and an en-route surprise party one year after her diagnosis. “There’s so much of a social aspect to cycling—that’s the thing that hooked me,” she says of the friendships she’s found through the sport.
Looking to networks of women cyclists also helped Cyndi get going. “When I started riding, I got connected with women who had been in the sport for years,” she says. Experienced cyclists can help with technical questions and bike selection and are a source of encouragement.
Cyndi suggests asking a local bike shop to connect you with other women cyclists and looking to online resources like Team Estrogen (www.teamestrogen.com/content/resources_links) for women’s cycling groups.
There are also groups specifically for survivors. For example, Team Survivor (www.teamsurvivor.org) is a nonprofit organization that provides group exercise and support programs for women with a present or past diagnosis of cancer. Members include active cancer fighters like physical therapist Genné McDonald, who leads the North Florida chapter.
Ride for a Cause
Cyclists have plenty of opportunities to join rides that promote cancer awareness and raise funds for cancer-related causes. You can look to events sponsored by local clubs or larger organizations like the Lance Armstrong Foundation (www.livestrong.org) and the Breakaway from Cancer initiative (www.breakawayfromcancer.com). Some riders even make solo efforts to honor a cause, as did Dr. Craig Broeder, who rode the perimeter of the United States to raise awareness of ovarian cancer (http://bicyclingforovariancancer.org) following his wife’s diagnosis.
Professional riders are also joining the cause. Among them is George Hincapie of Team BMC, a five-time Olympian and world and national champion, who is the spokesperson for the Breakaway from Cancer initiative. Hincapie is motivated to support the Breakaway cause by personal connections with cancer. He lost his uncle to the disease a couple of years ago and, as a teammate, supported good friend Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France wins after his recovery from cancer.
For survivors participating in the Breakaway rides, Hincapie offers this insight: “I tell them how important a team is in battling cancer, just like it is in cycling. A strong network of supporters, friends, and family makes it easier. That’s one of the great things about Breakaway from Cancer: it emphasizes that patients and their caregivers need a strong team.” Furthermore, he shares his enthusiasm for the sport: “Cycling to me is one of the greatest sports. It allows people from all levels of fitness to really challenge themselves and be able to get out and explore landscapes and your surroundings while getting a great workout.”