Riders taking part in the annual Seven Days in May cycle ride around Lake Ontario to raise money for pancreatic cancer research leave the Cancer Research Institute in Kingston for the next leg of their 1,100 kilometre journey. (Michael Lea/The Whig-Standard)
Cycling around Lake Ontario wasn’t in Martin Sowden’s plans for this spring.
But, then, getting pancreatic cancer wasn’t in his brother-in-law’s plans, either.
Richard Smith of Vancouver was planning his 65th birthday and set to retire after 39 years with CN when he started getting back pains just before Christmas.
“He didn’t think anything of it,” Sowden said.
But visiting a chiropractor didn’t help, and the pain just wouldn’t go away, so he got it checked out.
A cancerous mass was found on his pancreas. An ultrasound then found it had spread to his liver and lungs.
He was given weeks to live.
There was little Sowden could do to help his brother-in-law anymore, but he could raise money to help pay for more research for pancreatic cancer, a form of cancer with a notoriously low survival rate.
So he joined about 20 other cyclists who are in the middle of a fundraising trip around Lake Ontario.
They stopped in Kingston Monday morning for a brief visit at the Cancer Research Institute on Stuart Street, where they received a standing ovation from staff.
His participation in the ride is in honour of his brother-in-law, Sowden said, who is from the Welland area.
“My wife went searching on the Net for information about pancreatic cancer and in the process found this ride and told me about it. I am a pretty avid cyclist, so I thought I would give it a go.”
He has never cycled for so far or for so long before.
“It’s no easy feat, I’ll tell you that.”
But thoughts of his brother-in-law are with him most of the way and keep him going, he said.
Gord Townley also has thoughts of a loved one that are accompanying him on the ride.
The Mississauga man lost his mother Lorraine to pancreatic cancer back in November 2011.
To honour her and to help raise money to combat the cancer that took her, he and his family started up Seven Days in May, a round-the-lake ride of 1,100 km.
Now a charitable foundation, it has been a family affair from the beginning. His brother-in-law came up with the initial idea, his wife and sister handle the logistics and anyone who wants to can join in.
The first year they had five cyclists, all family and all still taking part.
The next year there were eight, then 14. This year there are 19.
Townley, who runs a small consulting business, doesn’t mind what their reasons are for joining in.
“Some people joined it for the adventure of riding around the lake. Some people joined it because they are inspired by the cause.”
He estimated 75% of this year’s cyclists have been personally affected by pancreatic cancer and are riding in honour of somebody close.
“We ride with inspiration every day,” he said. “I can promise you, today my mother will be forefront in my thoughts.”
The ride is starting to get noticed by the cycling community, and Townley is hoping next year’s will be ever bigger.
He has made a personal commitment to do it for 10 years.
“As long as I can ride, I intend to do this every year.”
Whenever Townley cycles through miserable, cold days on the ride around the lake, he thinks back to a similar day when his mother was near death.
“It was a terrible, wet, windy day and I was angry. I got on my bike and I rode and it was a terrible ride and it worked for me and I felt really good,” he said.
“Every time I am out in one of those nasty days, it just reminds me of that day. It goes through my head and gives me strength.”
This is the fourth year for the ride and the third year it has raised funds for the local Cancer Research Institute.
The money is going to fund a specific pancreatic cancer trial, called PA6.
Dr. Chris O’Callaghan, a senior investigator for the PA6 trial, explained it involves looking at whether a new combination of chemotherapy drugs will provide a significantly longer survival rate following surgery than with the standard chemotherapy drug now in use.
Canada is partnering with France in the trial, and it is running out of 20 centres in seven provinces in this country, an increase over previous years. Fifty-eight Canadians are taking part, double last year’s number.
“The trial is doing well and we are making a substantive contribution,” O’Callaghan said.
It will continue until November 2016.
“This is a trial that matters. This is a trial that has the possibility of improving the rate of cure of pancreas cancer.”
Dr. Jim Biagi, a co-chair of the PA6 trial, said he was impressed by the dedication of the riders.
Many people are touched by cancer, but he found it “so inspiring” that they took it to another level and did something substantial about it.
Dr. Biagi said pancreatic cancer can be a difficult cancer to treat.
“It’s a cancer that, when it is diagnosed, it is already quite advanced.”
Plus, the research funding is lower than for other forms of the disease.
And it is a stubborn cancer, he said.
“We haven’t found very many effective treatments compared to, say, breast cancer or colon cancer.”
But Biagi is hoping trials such as PA6 will result in changes for the better.
Research is “starting to take off” in the last few years, the disease is getting more attention and they are hoping to make earlier diagnoses.
“And we are finding treatments that are actually starting to work.”
Although it is too soon in the trial to make any conclusions, he is hoping the new combination of chemotherapy drugs, call folfirinox, will be more effective than the gemcitabine that traditionally follows the surgery to remove the tumour.
“We are expecting and hoping that folfirinox improves the cure rate,” Biagi said.
After the trial closes in 18 months, it will take another six months to a year before the data can be fully analyzed, he said.
Dr. Janet Dancey, director of the clinical trials group at the centre, said the National Cancer Institute of Canada has been carrying out clinical trials for more than three decades.
“This year is our 35th year of doing trials that matter, trials that can impact patients’ lives, improve outcomes, that can improve quality of life, including those with pancreatic cancer.”
Dancey paid tribute to Lorraine Townley, “who suffered from this disease but did not let it control her life.”
“She was an advocate, she supported patients with pancreatic cancer and she supported research so patients with this disease would have better outcomes than she herself had.”
Deirdre Brough, associate director for corporate engagement with the national office of the Canadian Cancer Society, said the ride was “such an unbelievable endeavour” and had raised more than $72,500 in the past three years. This year’s total was already more than $45,000, “which makes a significant difference in terms of funding such an important trial.”
Brough recognized pancreatic cancer is one of the hardest forms of cancer to treat successfully.
“We know there needs to be more focus on pancreatic cancer and research.”
She said funding for such research continues to rise and will be close to $4 million next year.
Brough also hoped the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer, currently at 8%, will also rise, thanks to the work being done through trials such as PA6.
More information on the ride is available online at 7daysinmay.com/donate/the-foundation.