DCC IV Draws Thousands of Cyclists in Support of Sylvester

A researcher who studies how cancer patients cope with and adapt to their illness, Suzanne Lechner, Ph.D., promised herself early last summer that she would ride in a charity cycling event to honor the subjects who participated in her last study — a stress management and education program for low-income African-American women with breast cancer.

Then came the news that stunned her: Her mother, Trudy, and aunt, Ellen, identical twins, were diagnosed with lung cancer only five months apart. Suddenly, not only her decision for whom to ride but also the nature of her work took on new meaning.

“There are so many layers to it,” said Lechner, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and psychology and Scientific Director of the Non-Therapeutic Research Support Core at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I’ve been studying and working with [cancer patients] for so many years, so I’ve understood it. Now, being a caregiver at this level is certainly going to enhance the work I do and give me an even deeper understanding. It’s been very powerful.”

On Sunday, Lechner laced up a pair of cycling shoes and hopped on a road bike to complete the most important bicycle ride of her life — a journey for the cancer patients whose lives she hopes to improve, and the mother and aunt with whom she shares a bloodline. She was among the more than 2,500 cyclists who rode in the fourth annual Dolphins Cycling Challenge (DCC), a fundraiser held November 2-3 to benefit the lifesaving treatment and research programs at Sylvester.

Spanning three counties and featuring rides ranging from 13 to 170 miles, the event began in 2010 in honor of former Miami Dolphins tight end Jim “Mad Dog” Mandich, who was treated at Sylvester for bile duct cancer before succumbing to the disease a year later at age 62.

Lechner rode in the 13-mile ride from the Dolphins training facility in Davie to Sun Life Stadium, where hundreds of family members, friends, survivors, and spectators gathered on the event’s final day to welcome cyclists, some of whom pedaled from as far away as West Palm Beach.

Even Lechner’s 5-year-old son, Jake, did his part, riding in the Sunday Kids Ride at the stadium.

Sitting in a wheelchair under a tent with other cancer survivors, Trudy Lechner, 65, waited anxiously for her daughter’s arrival. “There’s nothing like this. I feel like I have a connection to every rider who’s coming in,” Suzanne Lechner’s mother said, stopping in mid-sentence to cheer for cyclists who entered the stadium.

A registered nurse who conducted a cancer support group at Parkway General Hospital in the 1970s, Trudy is less than a month removed from cancer surgery. Her twin sister, Ellen, is still undergoing chemotherapy and was too ill to attend the event.

Other DCC cyclists had stories just as compelling. Lynette Estrada rode in Saturday’s 100-mile Century Ride for her 17-year-old autistic son, Lucas, who has battled brain cancer since he was 8.

“He’s like any 17-year-old,” said Estrada, a counselor at UM’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. “He loves to read, and he loves music, especially old tunes from the Beatles. When I was pregnant with him, I would listen to music and he would kick me to the beat. You can put music on now, and he loves it.”

Estrada completed her ride on a bruised and swollen knee, injured after a nasty fall at the starting line of Saturday’s Century Ride. A fellow cyclist, noting her injury, urged her to pull out of the ride. But she pressed on. “It’s because, aside from me being stubborn, my son and others like him aren’t quitters. There are ups and downs with plenty of obstacles. All you can do is go forward.”

She trained for the DCC with different cycling clubs. But most of her preparation was done in solitude, in the early-morning hours before most people awake.

She started running before she discovered cycling. “I would go for walks rather than sit in the hospital and stare at Lucas. The walks turned into runs, and that was my stress relief,” said Estrada, a veteran triathlete.

UM freshman Celia “CC” Schieffelin rode in Sunday’s 13-miler, dedicating her ride to her 50-year-old mother, Barbara Burg, who has battled stage three cancer for the past three years. It was the second DCC event in which Schieffelin has participated in 12 days. On October 23, the 18-year-old rode a stationary bike for an hour at UM’s Herbert Wellness Center as part of a spin-a-thon that also directed funds to Sylvester Cancer Center. On Sunday, fellow UM students Ryan Murphy and Jason Goldenberg rode with her. “CC is a close friend, so I wanted to support her,” said Goldenberg, 19, a premed major. “The ride was also personal for me because two weeks ago I lost my grandfather to prostate cancer.”

As cyclists continued to stream into Sun Life Stadium on Sunday, family members, friends, and spectators lined both sides of the long entrance ramp, pressing against barricades adorned with signs that read “Tackle Cancer,” “Dedicated,” and “One Mile Closer to a Cure.”

Among the thousands of riders who crossed the finish line Sunday, cycling 170 miles over two days, were Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School and CEO of UHealth, Stephen D. Nimer, M.D., Director of Sylvester, and UM Trustee Stuart Miller – all who rode the same distance last year.

At a nearby triptych nearly 8 feet tall, cyclists used magic markers to write the names of those for whom they rode — a sister, mother, grandfather, spouse, or close friend either living or deceased. Others wrote the names of cancer survivors on one side of the triptych labeled “Living Proof.” By noon, with some cyclists still out on the road, the panels had been replaced three times with blank ones. They eventually will be displayed inside Sylvester.

The fundraising total from this year’s DCC won’t be known for a few more days, but it’s already surpassed $2.3 million, according to Shira Kastan-Goldstein, Assistant Vice President for UM’s Government and Community Relations division, which helps organize the DCC.

Donations can still be made through the end of the year on cyclist’s personal Web pages or on the DCC website. This year’s goal: $4 million.

A check presentation will be made on November 24 at the Dolphins game against the Carolina Panthers.

View photos from this year’s DCC.

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