I know every twist and turn on the climb up north Pinehurst Road. I know how it pitches up a fraction at the stop sign where the hillside has taken away one of the lanes. I know the best line to take around the sharp hairpin where the real steep climbing starts. I know when to stand up around the last couple turns, and I know how deceptively long it is to the final kicker even after it comes into sight. The top is a jumble of a five way intersection; sometimes I’ve cruised through it barely breathing, other times I’ve come to a gasping stop and have sat hunched over my handlebars for several minutes.
I don’t remember the first time I climbed north Pinehurst; most likely it was when I was 11 or 12 years old, before Strava existed. It was either on a ride with my first team, leaving and returning from Lamorinda Cyclery in Orinda, or on one of the Tieni Duro summer rides that traversed the top of the Oakland and Berkeley hills. Today, Lamorinda Cyclery no longer exists, and the Larsens no longer live on the cul de sac in Moraga where we used to congregate before rolling out on hot sticky Wednesday afternoons.
Riding up Pinehurst on a cool but sunny winter day a few weeks ago, back in the bay for Christmas, I was hit with memories of all the times I’d done this one climb. A few: getting dropped from the group before even hitting the lower hairpin (I was young), throwing myself in a frenzy up the road at the USAC West Coast Junior Cycling Development Camp (never fast enough to catch the attention of the shadowy national team coaches), sprinting strongly to the summit on my first ride with Cal Cycling (fast enough to win bragging rights, at least for that day), crawling to the top sweaty and exhausted after five hour days to Mt. Diablo and back (training for Redlands, where real fast riders crushed my pro dreams). I thought especially of Alistair, a strong skinny climber who would set the fastest times in those junior development camps and who sadly passed away in 2018. This time, however, I rode it slowly, standing up briefly for the steep sections but keeping my power and heart rate well in check. Could I have gone harder? Probably, but these days I don’t have the same strength and endurance as I once had; chemotherapy has a way of sucking those right out of you.
I don’t have cancer anymore. I had it, but two months of chemotherapy and immunotherapy killed it all according to the wise PET scan machine. That doesn’t mean I’m done, unfortunately. Three more months of treatment is still needed to make sure every last malignant cell is eradicated, forever. I was diagnosed on October 8, 2019, and my last treatment date is scheduled for April 6, 2020. These two dates, just under six months apart, are perhaps the most concrete representation of my journey with cancer, but I know they are not the final word on the matter. Looking back, my past is tinged with questions even though we caught it in the early stages: what was the first warning sign, could I have done something earlier, why did I get it in the first place? The future, meanwhile, is littered with menacing follow up scans, waiting in the shadows to step out and intercept me with words that will shape my path: remission, recurrence, relapse.
Luckily for me, if you want to call it luck, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most treatable cancers, with five year survival rates above 90% and always improving. The fact that I am young, otherwise healthy, and was diagnosed at an earlier stage also weighs favorably on my outcome. I am also fortunate to have just about the strongest support system around me, from the doctors and nurses at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to my company and coworkers who have been super flexible around my treatment schedule to friends and relatives all over who have sent messages of support to my mom and dad and sister who have flown here to be with me when I am sitting at home feeling like shit. And of course, there’s Sarah, who was the first person I told when I felt the lump just above my left collarbone and who drove out from Pullman, skipping the last few days of her rotation, to be with me the night I was diagnosed.
Chemotherapy is, at least for me, a dichotomy. Check in on me on a good day, and you might find me out on the slopes skiing away, but on a bad day I won’t leave my room, let alone go outside. So far, the good days have slightly outweighed the bad days and I’m hoping to keep it that way. Overall though, I still feel like the same person I was before. Cancer has not led to some life changing epiphany; I still want to ride, to ski, to climb, to hike, to love. A family friend asked me, just before I got diagnosed, what I would do if it did indeed turn out to be cancer. I didn’t really have a good answer, other than to say that I would just do what they told me I needed to do. What other choice did I have? Cancer doesn’t mean I’m brave, or strong, or a fighter. It simply means I have some cells that are misbehaving and need to be gotten rid of, and thanks to modern medicine we’ve become pretty good at doing that. Maybe I would feel different if my flavor of cancer was more deadly or had a worse prognosis.
This is a challenging time, not just for me, but for this whole country. It seems to me as if many people have forgotten how to empathize with others, or at least are willing to enable an administration that certainly does not have much empathy. I can only hope that just as cancer will be banished from my body by next November, America is able to rid itself of the cancerous tone that has taken over politics and the government. This is important because I still plan on living a long life, and I’d prefer to live it in a world with glaciers and without war. And what are my plans? Well, if cancer has given me anything, it’s been a chance to reset. Riding up Pinehurst that day, my thoughts ran from those I love to those I’ve lost and back, and I lost myself in the quiet of the redwoods and the regularity of my breath. I don’t have it all figured out, but that’s ok. Pinehurst Road isn’t going anywhere, and I have a lot of rides left to do.