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Gillian Grant loves crossing the finish line at the Ride to Conquer Cancer.
"I love it because it's so packed and we love seeing our families and friends," said Grant. "The first year I did the Ride, I didn't realize what an impact it would have on me until I saw my whole family at the finish line. I completely dissolved."
The Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer is a 200km+ bike ride which raises funds in support of research at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, one of the top five cancer research centres in the world. Last year, the Ontario Ride raised over $19 million supporting the Princess Margaret's efforts in creating the new gold standard in cancer care: Personalized Cancer Medicine.
11 years in remission
While the Ride raises critical funds for the Cancer Centre, it is also an event of emotional significance for cancer survivors who ride with a yellow flag on their bicycle. This year, Grant will be 11 years in remission as a cancer survivor. She will be riding with a yellow flag for the third time on June 7 and 8 for the 2014 Ride.
"I was so happy to have my family at the finish line because cancer is a family affair," said Grant. "It's not just me. It affected my little kids, it affected my husband, it affected my parents."
As a mother of three children, Grant remembers how she and her family felt when the symptoms first started.
"I was 38 years old and extraordinarily sick," said Grant.
After struggling with her breathing and eating while doctors worked tirelessly to find what was wrong, it was finally confirmed that Grant had cancer. In particular, she had a form of blood cancer known as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Grant was then referred to the Princess Margaret for treatment.
"After being misdiagnosed for so long, it was an incredible relief to arrive at the Princess Margaret and to stop worrying," said Grant. "I stopped looking at the internet and reading books. I just put my faith in my doctor and my nurse. And they knew the odds were grim but they saved my life."
Despite the relief that Grant felt at finally having an action plan, her cancer journey was no less challenging. The side effects of her cancer treatment were taxing on her body.
The 'unspoken' side effects
"One of the things that is rarely talked about in cancer is the many side effects that treatment takes," said Grant. "You're always so grateful that you survived that you rarely speak about the side effects."
The side effects were so great that Grant was unable to support the initial launch of the Ride to Conquer Cancer in 2008.
"I've always wanted to do the Ride. Always. As soon as I knew there was something that would benefit the Cancer Centre, I was keen," said Grant. "But I couldn't do the Ride when it first started. I just had too many ongoing complications with various physical ailments and the idea just seemed too overwhelming and impossible at that time."
Grant still wanted to support the Princess Margaret in any way she could. Three years after her diagnosis, she began volunteering for the Princess Margaret's chemotherapy unit. She has now been volunteering for eight years and shares her own cancer journey with the cancer patients she meets every week.
Becoming a rider
As the years passed, Grant slowly gained her strength back. With the goal of completing the Ride as soon as she felt physically recovered, Grant was finally able to sign up for the Ride three years ago.
"As a survivor, to watch my body gain its strength back is such a significant symbol of recovery. It's very, very powerful to be a Rider," said Grant. "To able to ride with my family…it just says to the whole world: A) I'm fine, B) we're going to beat this, and C) we're going to do it together. And no one is ever alone."
In addition to the finish line, Grant also looks forward to the support of the Ride's Cheer Squad who shout and ring bells for Riders along their 200km+ journey. The Cheer Squad is traditionally made up of University Health Network (UHN) employees and their families.
"The cheering sections mean so much to me. When I did the Ride the first year, I was quite upset that there weren't that many cheer stations," said Grant. "Mind you, it was raining heavily. But I missed it," she added with a laugh. "I found the second year there were way more people, and I love it. I love it! The signs of support, the cheering, the kids—you just get reconnected to why you're doing it. And it's not an easy ride and you don't want to feel alone."
"I know it's probably weird for the fans because you fly by on your bike and they may not be getting much feedback from the Riders—you can't really stop—but I can tell you it matters. It really matters. In spots with long stretches or a big hill, the cheer squad keeps you going."
Grant says that cheer squad volunteers should expect to feel moved by the Ride.
"The people cheering will be affected by those yellow survivor flags," said Grant. "It sounds crazy but I can tell you every single Rider who Rides for someone, feels them with them. It's not a race, it's not a personal fitness goal. It is something dramatic and powerful and meaningful."
Join the Cheer Squad this year!
To find out more about joining the Cheer Squad for the 2014 Ride to Conquer Cancer on June 7 and 8, please e-mail Lauren Thiboutot (email@example.com). Options include cheering in Toronto or cheering in Hamilton (transportation will be provided from the Princess Margaret for the latter).
To find out more about the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer or to support a local Rider, please visit