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Wednesday, April 25 Opinion

In the Suburbs: Putting mettle to pedals for cancer survivors

Cancer survivor Amy Nessel will be spearheading Team Oddsmakers for the 2014, 10th anniversary ride of the CT Challenge, the two-day bicycling event that raises money for cancer-survivor programs.

And true to her team's name, Amy has beaten the odds on her original breast cancer diagnosis in 2010, when she was told she might live for another two years. On Saturday, she and her teammates again will ride 25 miles on their pink bikes.

Team Oddsmakers, which includes riders from several states, already has raised close to $10,000 for the Southport survivorship center that also is called CT Challenge.

Amy plans to reach her fifth year of survivorship in January. She began riding in the bicycle event with her son a year before her diagnosis, when the survivorship center was only a vision.

Today, she says the center, which opened in 2012, was her soft place to land, and she says her favorite day is the one she rides in the challenge.

As a visitor to the center in 2013 and a guest for last year's ride, I couldn't agree more. There is something so special about these survivors and the CT Challenge community. I continue to be amazed by their strength and courage.

A year ago, I watched the ceremonial release of butterflies signifying hope of hope, and as thousands of riders rolled out of the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Westport, I was filled with awe and respect. I shed a lot of tears for what this organization has come to mean for thousands of survivors like Amy.

Former Sacred Heart University Athletic Director Don Cook will ride in memory of his son Christopher, who died of cancer at 48. He and Christopher's widow will ride with a Sacred Heart team led by Bobby Valentine, the executive director of athletics, former Major League Baseball player and manager who is the honorary chairman of this year's ride.

Because community and team effort are such a significant part of the success of this annual ride, I asked my friend Lee, herself a recent cancer survivor, about other unusual team families in this ride. Lee was only too happy to highlight other cycling teams.

At the top of her list was the Hillbusters, a predominantly Fairfield team that has participated in every CT Challenge and raised nearly $300,000 in the past nine years. Captains Matt Wiant and Scott Craighead will be spearheading next week's ride.

Cindi Bigelow, CEO of Bigelow Tea Co., is the captain of Bethie's Buddies, which rides in memory of Beth Davis, who lost her courageous, 15-year battle with cancer on May 31. Cindi said the team knows Beth's spirit will riding with them, cheering friends and family.

These teams represent only a handful of the close to 100 teams -- plus hundreds of families and individuals -- who will be riding.

Lee explained that the Fairfield community has been the real lifeline of CT Challenge from the start, helping the organization raise a record $1.65 million last year. She said she doubted any other Connecticut community has rallied around this hometown charity as much as Fairfield has. And the support has been growing steadily from other communities around the state.

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Who among us doesn't know at least one cancer survivor? In my case, two are close -- my sister-in-law and my friend, Dena, both of whom beat the odds and are going strong.

Our close friend Hazel is also fighting this battle and is constantly researching new trials and treatment methods. While her diagnosis hasn't been encouraging, we believe she's going to beat the odds and be around for a long time, too.

The Challenge offers a wide array of rides -- from 5-mile loops suitable for families to a two-day, 85-mile trek for more serious cyclists that begins Friday. The rest of the rides are the next day.

There is still a week to break out a bicycle and train even for a five-miler. As Lee pointed out, the distance one rides is immaterial. It's the show of support that counts. I will be a virtual rider but will contribute to the cause and I hope I can get out there again this year to wait for the butterflies and cheer those survivors.

( To donate or for more information about the CT Challenge, visit www.ctchallenge.org)

Steven Gaynes "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: stevengaynes44@gmail.com.