On September 27, Times Square plays host to over 100 stationary bikes and nearly a thousand supporters to help kick off registration and fundraising for Cycle for Survival’s 2018 indoor cycling events. Instructors from Equinox, Cycle for Survival’s founding partner, lead the crowd to ride, dance, and cheer – all to beat rare cancers.
Since 2007, the Cycle for Survival community has raised more than $140 million – every dollar goes to rare cancer research and clinical trials spearheaded by Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK). It’s critical work: About 50% of cancer patients have what’s categorized as a rare cancer, and Cycle for Survival funding has paved the way for groundbreaking discoveries.
To get a more intimate feel for the impact Cycle for Survival has had on the actual individuals affected by rare cancers, we chatted with Beth Fulton, a New York-based mom who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2016. Her friends and family rallied around her, riding with Cycle for Survival at a 2017 event in New York City and raising nearly $70,000. Beth’s now cancer-free and gearing up to ride at the Times Square Takeover and then at 2018 Cycle for Survival events. Read on for her inspiring story, and what she’s learned along the way.
Tell us about your diagnosis. What was that moment like for you?
My body had been sending me signals, but they were all faint. Feeling “off,” headaches, occasional fatigue, strange cramping – nothing serious or persistent enough to think anything was actually wrong. I figured that I was feeling normal wear and tear that I could chalk up to stress and the demands of working a full time job and having a toddler at home. Finally, over Labor Day weekend of 2016, I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed because of pain in my abdomen. I went to my internist thinking I was dealing with appendicitis or a severe stomach bug, and she referred me onto my gynecologist after zeroing in on the area of concern. After five days of intensive ultrasounds and scans, I was given the diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
I found out while I was at work – I had my doctor tell me over the phone because I could tell the news wasn’t good and I couldn’t bring myself to make it downtown to hear what she had to say. After she told me, I walked out of my office and out onto Park Avenue into the sea of Midtown. I found my way into St. Patrick’s Cathedral and sat there for 30 minutes, thinking, and praying, and trying to sort through how this could be happening to me at 33 years old, and how I was going to tell my husband.
How did you share the news with your family?
I called my husband and he came to meet me right away. We were on the street outside my doctor’s office at that point, and we just hugged and cried and hugged and cried for what felt like an hour. We had no idea what to do or even what to say; it was absolutely devastating. Over the next few days, we shared the news with the rest of our families as we worked to come up with a plan, meetings with oncologists and surgeons and forming a strategy to save my life. It was the hardest week of my life, and saying that feels like the understatement of the century.
How did you juggle treatment with everything else? What were some of hardest moments along the way?
Once I found my way to MSK, a plan took shape and I realized what the next months were going to look like for me: A radical debulking surgery to remove the cancer, followed by 18 rounds of chemotherapy alongside a clinical trial that would last for two years. I was incredibly fortunate during this entire time to have an unwavering support system of friends and family and colleagues that helped me put the rest of my life on hold so that I could throw all of my energy towards my treatments and my recovery.
The hardest part for me was feeling like I couldn’t always be there for my 3-year-old daughter … not being able to give her a bath, or play games with her, or chase her around outside, or take her to school. My husband was absolutely incredible at picking up the slack in the parenting department. He did anything and everything to take the burden off of me. Looking back, I do think that it was special for them to have so much father-daughter time together. They always came up with crazy plans and little outings so that I could rest. We were also so fortunate to have an added layer of support from our amazing nanny who worked many extra hours to create continuity at home. And, my daughter and I got into a routine where we would snuggle in bed each night and watch Peppa Pig before bedtime. Even though I was sick and not the best version of myself, those are still special memories for us.
Tell us about your support system during this time. How did your friends and family rally around you?
The support I felt from family and friends this past year has been my biggest source of strength. I read a quote recently, something like, “True friends come running towards you when you are in trouble.” I love this description so much because I literally picture all of my friends physically sprinting towards me, which was really how it felt once I got my diagnosis. My best friend flew home from London to be with me the week after my surgery. Another friend organized a meal train that filled our fridge and freezer with nourishing food for months on end. Others would come visit on weekends and take my daughter on outings. I also had friends and family join my husband and me almost every week while I got my chemo. We would sit at MSK and tell stories and laugh and cry, but mostly we were just crying from laughing so hard. There’s something to be said for uninterrupted time with dear friends – I’m so lucky to have friends that lifted me out of the reality of the situation I was in.
I also can’t leave out the tremendous support that I felt from my team of doctors, nurses, and staff at MSK. From the moment that I walked into the doors of MSK, I felt the sense that I had become part of a new community – a community that I often miss now that my appointments have become less frequent. I am forever grateful to Dr. Dennis Chi, Dr. Josh Smith, Dr. Tara Soumerai, Dr. Claire Friedman, Chrissy, Kiely, Katy, Beep, the entire team of chemotherapy nurses, the post-op nurses, as well as all of the other wonderful health professionals at MSK that I have interacted with during this journey.
How did Cycle for Survival first come into your life? Tell us how it’s since changed your life.
Two of my college friends had participated in Cycle For Survival in past years. It was their idea to get a big group of friends and family together to raise money and ride in my honor. I had heard about it, but never imagined that I would be battling one of the rare cancers that Cycle for Survival raises funds for. Everything about participating in the event felt so right and so exciting to be a part of. The best part was that some of the nurses and staff that I had gotten to know during my visits to MSK were on a team on the bikes next to us. Cheering with them and feeling their support along with my friends and family was such a rush. I was two weeks away from being done with chemo and in many ways I was physically weaker than I have ever been, but for those hours, surrounded by family, friends, and MSK staff, I have never felt stronger or more alive.
What does it mean to you to be able to participate in the upcoming Cycle for Survival event?
It means the world to me. Being cancer-free, and able to ride for this cause along with so many people that are dear to me … I can’t think of something I would rather be doing in life right now. I recently attended a Cycle for Survival event where my surgeon, Dr. Dennis Chi, spoke about the ovarian cancer study he was conducting that was funded by a Cycle for Survival grant. This hit very close to home – the funds from Cycle for Survival are put into the hands of mission-driven researchers and doctors seeking to cure rare cancers. The money is not allocated over the course of years, but in a matter of months. Time is of the essence when it comes to battling rare cancers and I can’t wait to get back on the bike this year as a healthier person helping the cause.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself during this journey?
I’ve learned that life can throw us curveballs and that attitude is everything in how we make out. I chose to approach my cancer journey with positivity and enthusiasm, and part of what gave me the ability to have that attitude is the team that rallied in support around me. Cycle for Survival became a crucial piece of my team and I am so grateful for that.
What’s the top piece of advice you’d give others currently going through similar situations?
Find a place like MSK where you can throw your energy toward treatment, recovery, and community. Once I had a plan in place at MSK, things came together for me. There were plenty of hard moments along the way, but finding an institution that I could fully trust and always gave me answers was so crucial for my mental and physical well-being.
What about advice for caregivers, friends, and family of someone battling cancer?
Never be afraid to reach out to support a friend or loved one going through cancer.
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