When the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride arrived at the IWK after biking from Vancouver, B.C. in 2012, pediatric oncologist-hematologist Bruce Crooks cheered the riders on with his patient Hannah MacKenzie.
“She came sliding up alongside of me, and her head comes up to about there on me,” he points to the bottom of his short sleeve. “She said, ‘OK Brucey, we doing this next year?’ I looked down and asked, ‘Do I have any choice in this?’ She looked back up and said no. So I said ‘I reckon that we’re doing it then.’”
The ride is a relay-style trek that sees thousands of cyclists cross the country over 18 days in September. Some will join for a day or two, but the 35 national team riders bike every day.
“It’s as many days and kilometres as the Tour de France,” Crooks says. “It’s not as aggressive, but you also don’t get a rest day.”
MacKenzie didn’t end up riding that year, but Crooks rode about 150 km per day. In 2017 he’ll ride on the “big boys and girls” team, covering 200 to 300 km per day.
“Their longest ride last year was from Saskatoon down to Regina,” he says. “Bring it on is what I say.”
Biking is the visible part of the event, but Crooks says it’s the ambassadorship and awareness aspect of the ride that makes it important. “If you’re on a bike and riding you’re virtually invisible,” he says. “You just pop up here, and then suddenly you’re on the road and nobody knows who you are until you just pop up somewhere else.”
Childhood cancers account for less than one per cent of all cancer cases in Canada. “We get very little publicity, very little research,” Crooks says. “Less than one per cent of all research money generated is specifically directed toward children’s cancer. Consider that our success rate in curing, cancer goes away never comes back again, you lead an otherwise normal life, is around the region of 82 per cent.”
The ride stops at community events across the country, and some of Canada’s 17 pediatric oncology centres and hospitals. They meet families and doctors who are fighting cancer, those who lost loved ones, and survivors. Riders hear and share their own stories. Like Crooks and MacKenzie, childhood cancer has invaded their lives too.
“The majority of the people on the ride are parents of children who have died, or parents of children who are one of the lucky stories who are still here,” says MacKenzie. She’s one of the lucky ones.
MacKenzie was 15 when her mother brought her to the IWK emergency room for leg pain in 2008. The family had just moved to Halifax. Crooks admitted her to the hospital. The same evening blood work revealed she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. From her neck down, 97 per cent of her bone marrow was cancerous.
“When I graduated [in 2015] it was my five-year cancer-free mark,” she says. “Oddly, Bruce just happened to be the doctor on the floor that day for my final discharge. That combined with five years cancer-free and graduating from university, I knew this was the year that I had to do it. Bruce, again twisting his rubber arm, said, ‘If you do it, I’ll do it.’”
Preparing for a 3,000-kilometre plus ride isn’t for the faint of heart. Jonathan Ells, Crooks’ trainer at GoodLife Parklane since 2012, says preparing for an event like this takes six months to a year of focused training.
Crooks, Ells says, trains year-round, but when he started SNKCR wasn’t even on his mind.
“Right at the very beginning, I started going to the gym because I needed to go for my own sanity and my own health,” says Crooks.
In his line of work “there’s not only receiving bad news, there’s also giving bad news,” he says. “You have to have a way of dealing with that yourself. A lot of people will take their me-time, or get involved with a hobby, or spend more time with their families–or do something crazy like biking across Canada.”
Before signing-up for SNKCR, he rode from his home near the rotary to the IWK and back daily, about five kilometres each way. It was nothing compared to the 160-km days he had coming. “When I realized that I was doing the ride, I got on to my trainer and said, ‘This is the real thing,’” he recalls.
Crook recommends that anyone who’s going to take on such an epic journey work with a professional. “He makes sure that I’m in the best possible shape that I can be, so I can do right by him, I can do right by me, and I don’t hurt myself.” He says working with Ells keeps him focused on his goals.
Eating right is another major part of training. During the ride, Crooks eats up to 6,000 calories a day to keep his energy levels up.
On one ride a friend in Pickering told him he looked underweight. “I said do you realize what I’ve eaten since 5:30 this evening? Two trays of sushi from Loblaw’s, the big ones, not the little ones. And then I ate a whole portion of fried rice and jerk chicken. Then I had a three-course steak dinner with beer. And if you stand there long enough I might have to eat you!”
Aside from the physical preparation, there’s the mental preparation.
“I don’t think I was prepared emotionally for the ride,” says MacKenzie. “There were definitely mornings that I woke up in the middle of Nowhere, Saskatchewan that I thought what am I doing? It’s 4 a.m., it’s freezing, and I have to put on these skin-tight tights and get on a bike.”
Crooks says one of the hardest parts is being away from home. “You’re completely cut off from the rest of the world for like three weeks. You exist in your own tiny universe and occasionally interact with the real world. You’ve got a mission, everybody’s got a goal and that’s what you do.”
It’s hard for his husband too. In 2013, Crooks swerved to avoid a truck that cut off the riders on the highway in Quebec. The pack was riding about 36 km/h, and Crooks was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Without enough room to avoid the rider in front of him he hit the pavement and rolled. The fall scraped his arm, but the worst part was making the call home that night.
“I came off not badly injured but having to phone up and say, ‘Hi I’ve had an accident,’” says Crooks. “Obviously, he’s got that major concern: is my husband going to be safe? Is something going to happen to him in the middle of the Rockies or the Prairies? Is he going to come back?”
Ride organizers take safety seriously. In addition to the national riders and stage riders, a volunteer team helps make the ride possible and safe.
Fiona Steele volunteered in 2015 and 2016. Her husband Scott joined her in 2016. The Steeles drove one of the RVs that follow or precede the riders. Additionally, the couple took over cooking duties for most of the stops.
Like many on the ride, the Steeles have a personal connection to childhood cancer. In 2013, Crooks diagnosed their son Simon with the same cancer that MacKenzie survived.
Fifteen-year-old Simon loved music, Monty Python, and Dr. Who. The Steele family got to know Crooks for his humour and his drive, and says Scott, his beard—something the children on the ward love about him.
During treatment, Crooks discovered that Simon also had hyperdiploidy, a condition so rare that he was only the IWK’s third case. Simon’s treatments intensified. In 11 months, he had two surgeries, over 92 chemotherapy sessions, 63 blood transfusions, 133 lab tests, six bone marrow tests, 13 spinal taps, and more.
Fiona says, “Bruce had a time dealing with that because once they found out that’s what it was, Simon’s whole game changed. The treatments changed, everything changed…”
“And his odds changed,” Scott says picking up where Fiona trails off. Simon died on Jan. 10, 2014.
The next year Fiona joined Crooks on the ride. Before they left for Vancouver he asked if he could carry Simon’s ashes across the country with him on the ride. “For a doctor to carry a patient’s ashes across the country, it had to be very hard for him too,” says Scott. In 2016, Fiona and Scott took Simon’s ashes in the RV with them.
While the Steeles, MacKenzie, and Crooks all admit that the ride has difficult times, from the physical strain of biking to sharing stories of the children who didn’t survive, they have a lot of fun too.
Scott works in aerospace, which he calls a very serious industry, but the ride reminded him that he still has a silly side. “We stopped at Value Village [during the 2015 ride] and pretty much put our mortgage payment down on about 14 costumes.”
He drove the RV up ahead of the pack, pulled over. “We would get out of the RV in these costumes on the side of the road looking like idiots and wave our arms around and you’d get a smile out of them, which was all they needed to keep going the next 100 km.”
Crooks says every year SNKCR riders and crew become a family. “You can’t spend three weeks living in such close proximity to people and going through what we do without having a massive connection. Those people are all my friends and will be until the day I die.”
This year will be a new adventure for the Steeles. Scott’s taking his brother-in-law along as his costume and kitchen partner because Fiona is riding. She’ll carry Simon’s ashes this year.
Fiona says she’s starting from zero on the fitness scale. She currently has two trainers: one former SNKCR rider himself who monitors her progress on a stationary bike using sensors and tracking software, the other is local, in Lunenburg.
Her training is intense. For the first six weeks, she’ll do three days a week on the bike and three days per week at the gym with her local trainer. After that she’s signed up for a six-week boot camp. “By the spring I’ll be able to do heavy time on my bike,” she says. “Bruce wants to do the Cabot Trail with me. It’s crazy, but I have to be able to do it.”
She’s nervous about the next few months, but deep down she knows she’ll be ready for September.
“People think it’s a punishment to do this journey,” she says. “And I think wow you really don’t get it. It’s not about self-flagellation it’s about making a difference. I want to make a difference. I know I can, so I will.”