Pelotonia is a grassroots bike tour with one goal: to end cancer
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A bicycle built for two

The Rider

A bicycle built for two

Did you see the cute photo of a couple riding a tandem bicycle while training for Pelotonia?  Both young and happy and excited to be riding together. It was such a compelling photo that I knew I wanted to learn more about them and the story behind the bicycle built for two.

So, I set out to meet Jessie Lee and her husband Ryan Hawkins – the couple in the photograph. Jessie filled me in that their entire year had been thrown upside down after she went to her doctor with concern of some weird symptoms including cramps, bloating and fatigue, but nothing super out of the ordinary. She had also told her doctor that she had noticed some blood when going to the restroom, but “that was the only thing that stood out. It happened one time and then again, a month or so later. I didn’t really think too much about it.” Her family doctor, Dr. Oppenheim-Knudsen, immediately recommended getting a colonoscopy, just to be sure.

It’s a good thing she did.

During her colonoscopy the doctors found a mass. It was stage 2 colon cancer. Jessie and Ryan’s dreams of starting a family that year were quickly put on hold after hearing this devastating news.

When meeting with Dr. Alan Harzman at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, Jessie and Ryan expressed that they had two main concerns. Getting rid of the cancer and preserving her fertility.  “I wanted to know the treatment options and how they would affect my ability to have children.”

“I was so grateful to have doctors that understood my needs and wanted to ensure that my quality of life after cancer was kept. But unfortunately, while we were working through different options, I got sick. Really sick.”

Jessie’s tumor had grown so big that it was obstructing her intestines to the point that they could no longer wait to remove it. They had fortunately caught it before it spread, but since her tumor was so large, Jessie needed chemo. Yet again, Jessie’s fertility was at stake.

“We met with our oncologist, Dr. John Hays, and we talked a lot about my fertility and what it meant to us.  Obviously, we wanted to kill any and all cancer that was in my body, but we wanted to have children someday. Ultimately, we had to let go and trust that the doctors would do everything they could to help us do just that.”

Unfortunately, they weren’t sure exactly what the impact the chemo would have on her fertility, ultimately leading to Jessie and Ryan deciding to freeze her embryos before starting her chemo treatments.

Typically, this process would take months to prepare for, but with her circumstances they didn’t have time. With the help of her doctors she was able to see a fertility specialist right away, and just two days later she was starting hormone injections.

“I was so impressed to get into a specialist right away and so grateful for how flexible they were being. Our doctor rearranged his entire schedule to get me in and even saw me on a Saturday.”

As they were going through the hormone treatments, Jessie unfortunately hit another obstacle. The fertility treatments that she was doing were not covered under her insurance. “This was so surprising to us. You’re trying to make it through treatment, emotionally, physically, and financially, and you get hit with finding out that in order to keep the hope of having future children, you will have to spend 10k-20k just to preserve your embryos for the possibility. It was just one hit after the other.”  

But yet again, Jessie and Ryan stayed strong and knew what they wanted. They weren’t going to let this setback stop them from their dreams of one day having a child.  They researched and found ways that she could help offset these costs and had her eggs removed just a few days prior to starting chemo.  “It was mentally, hormonally, and physically challenging, but we did it.”

After 6 months of chemo, she went in for updated scans and a colonoscopy. The colonoscopy was clear! She went home and celebrated with her family and started thinking about the future.

But then, the unthinkable happened. The next morning, Jessie learned that her scans showed a recurrence. It wasn’t in her colon.  This time it was a cantaloupe sized tumor on her ovary. This would mean the possibility of losing both her ovaries and possibly her uterus, which would smash her dreams of ever carrying a child. Her heart and spirits, crushed.  

“That first diagnosis is so out of the blue, but you are pumped to beat it. But when you’re hit with a recurrence, it’s a major struggle. Mentally, physically and emotionally.” “This was extremely difficult for us. We had done so much to ensure that someday we could have a child, and the thought of that being taken away from us after all this time was heartbreaking. Ryan and I were devastated, but ultimately knew we had to get this cancer out of my body.  Our doctors knew what we wanted and ultimately, we had to let go and trust that they would do what is best for our family. Again. Signing the consent forms to let them do just that was one of the most difficult decisions of my life. But we had to trust them.”

20 minutes after starting surgery, Dr. Ritu Salani was done. Walking into a room with Ryan and their family standing there, Dr. Salani could happily tell them that the tumor was just on the ovary and they did not need to remove her uterus. A sigh of relief. She was done. They hadn’t lost their chance of her ever carrying a child.  

Now, just a few months after multiple surgeries, hormone injections, and the fear of losing her fertility Jessie is currently “all clear.” She and her husband moved to California for his job, but Jessie flies back every 3 months for her scans at the James.

 “We feel so comfortable with my doctors at the James that I will fly across the country because we trust them. We do know though, that whenever the day comes that we are trying to start our family and become pregnant that I’ll need to have a doctor in California. That’ll be its own battle once we start to take on that challenge. But the beautiful thing is… we can and it’s because of them. For that we will be forever grateful.”

How did they do it? How did they stay so positive? 

They did it together.

“Ryan was always there for me throughout the entire process. He was there when I found out I had cancer, he refused to go home when I was going through treatments or surgeries, he stayed overnight at the hospital, he gave me my hormone shots… he was my rock. I couldn’t imagine riding in Pelotonia without my partner, my cheerleader, and what a better way to do that then to ride together on a tandem bike. You can bet that we will be flying back for Pelotonia 2019.”

After learning about Jessie and Ryan, I will forever think of them when I see someone riding a tandem bike. The effort, the support, the synchronization of riding together, and their story will always be in the back of my head. 

You can’t ride a tandem bike and expect one person to do all the work. You both give 100%. You each have to give 100% to get to that finish line.  Jessie and Ryan did just that.

We heart you, Jessie and Ryan.

Have a story you would like to share? Email Emily Smith at esmith@pelotonia.org. We love hearing from you!