With every pedal of his bike during Saturday’s 37nd El Tour de Tucson’s, Austin Thacker will think of them.
Lylah Lee Patton and Sebastian Meyer were two young people he met while fighting cancer together at Diamond Children’s Medical Center.
Thacker was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma. His doctors told him it was a miracle he survived.
Patton and Meyer were not as fortunate. Patton was his youth pastor’s daughter who was 2 or 3 years old when she was hit in the head by a football. When she passed out, she was rushed to an urgent-care center. An X-ray found brain cancer.
Meyer had a tumor in his throat.
“I feel guilty that I survived and someone as innocent as Lylah did not,” said Thacker, an Ironwood Ridge High School graduate who is currently a sophomore at Grand Canyon University.
“Sebastian and his family supported me through my cancer. At the end of the day I am grateful I can ride a bike. It’s an ho nor to do it for my old cancer floor (at Banner-University Medical Center). To ride in honor of those who can’t is beautiful.”
Thacker gave an automatic “yes” when Banner asked him to be its spokesman for El Tour, Southern Arizona’s largest participatory sporting event. It took him a few more minutes, however, to say yes to riding all 100 miles. The 20-year-old Thacker hadn’t been on a bike for six years when he got back into it this spring. A few days before being diagnosed with cancer in April of 2013, he rode only a few miles and was wheezing.
Doctors soon found tumors in Thacker’s head, spine, ribs and kidneys and a mass the size of a grapefruit around his heart. Over the next year, Thacker underwent seven surgeries while enduring chemotherapy, total body radiation, concentrated radiation and spinal taps. The cancer came back, and Thacker was told his survival rate was very small.
“I had to make the decision to keep fighting,” said Thacker, who underwent a bone marrow transplant on April 10, 2014.
Once he was cleared to go back to regular activities, it wasn’t so easy.
“That’s the problem with having cancer: You can’t just move on. It changes you and leaves a footprint on your heart,” he said. “It’s the tip of the iceberg. When you survive cancer there is psychological damage, too.
“I couldn’t sit still, so I wrote a novel — ‘My Hand Mitten.’ It took three years but was published my senior year of high school through Make-A-Wish.”
Thacker was five years cancer-free this April. That’s when he saw an ad on Instagram for the Ulman Foundation’s 4K for Cancer bike ride and he knew he had to do it.
“That’s where the love started,” he said.
Thacker trained five to six days a week for 200 days leading up to the ride.
He raised $4,600 for Ulman, which provides support for young adults who are diagnosed with cancer.
He rode from Baltimore to Seattle this summer, spending 70 days on the road. Banner-UMC came calling after that.
Thacker said he expects Saturday’s ride to take between five and seven hours to complete. And he hasn’t had a chance to train on his bike.
“I feel foolish that I’ve been riding a stationary bike in the gym,” he said. “I am very excited to see how far I can push myself — especially when I have a purpose. And riding for Banner Pediatric is a phenomenal purpose. I am grateful to all the wonderful people at Banner. It has a very special place in my heart. And to do this in my hometown warms my heart.”
- As of Friday afternoon, more than 6,000 riders had signed up for Saturday’s rides, exceeding the number of participants last year. More than 800 signed up for the Family Fun Ride.
- Former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
- Mark Kelly will take part in the 25-mile ride that starts at 1 p.m. at Marana Heritage River Park.
- El Tour’s title sponsor Banner-University Medicine will use money raised from the ride to build a play zone for sick children at Diamond Children’s Medical Center. Events will be held there, as well as activities like pet and art therapy. Children will be able to watch movies and even make movies.
Former El Tour dedication recipients
- Kathryn Bertine
- Nelson Vails
- Denise Mueller-Korenek will all participate in Saturday’s ride. Vails is riding 100 miles, Bertine is riding 50 miles and Mueller-Korenek is riding 25 miles. Bertine said she fell in love with cycling the first time she rode 100 miles in Tucson. Her advice to new riders is to “revel in the entire experience and seize the moment.”
For the past 10 years, Vails — a former Olympic cyclist — has circled this date on his calendar. He said that fellow riders shouldn’t follow him, as he doesn’t “follow the rules. I ride in the middle of the road because there are thorns in the gutter.”
- Charlene Grabowski, Perimeter Bicycling’s new CEO, ordered 2,400 rain ponchos that are now sitting unused in her garage. She was happy that the sun appeared at Friday’s news conference and expo.
“Mother Nature treated us well,” she said.