Mark D'Agostino has been planning for this year's Pan-Mass Challenge bicycling event since he first tackled the bike-a-thon against cancer 14 years ago.
Since that first ride in 2003 — which D'Agnostino entered after losing a sister-in-law to cancer — signing up for the annual event, in which he rides each year to honor a family member who has battled the disease, has become second nature, the 58-year-old Towson resident said.
The fundraiser in D'Agostino's native Massachusetts raises money for critical research and cancer care at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston through a two-day 192-mile ride in which participants travel 111 miles the first day, climbing 2,500 feet in the process. On the second day, the cyclists who tackle the same route D'Agostino chooses ride the final 81 miles, which takes them into Provincetown, Mass., climbing 1,500 feet to finish to cheers from family and friends.
Though heart disease is the leading cause of death nationwide, cancer is a close second, with more than 595,000 deaths in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Riding in the event helps him to cope with the pervasiveness of the disease, said D'Agostino, who came to the area four years ago to take a job as a senior video producer at the Baltimore offices of Exelon Corporation. D'Agostino produces internal communications videos for the energy company.
His father, Victor D'Agostino, who died of an unrelated cause in 2012, battled operable prostate cancer.
"I don't think of it as coming back," D'Agostino said of the Massachusetts event. "I just never stop. This is now a passion of mine. There's so many people I know affected by cancer that this event has just become a part of my life."
More than 6,200 cyclists from 40 states and eight countries will participate this year, according to the Pan-Mass Challenge website.
Organizers say the event has raised more than $547 million for cancer research. Begun in 1980 by executive director Billy Starr, the ride raises money for the fundraising arm of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, known as the Jimmy Fund.
"When I created it in 1980, it wasn't necessarily a career track; I just felt it was something I needed to do," Starr said of the event he launched after losing his mother, uncle and cousin to cancer while he was in his early 20s.
"The first night of the first PMC, when there were 36 people, I listened to people say 'next year, next year' and I realized I'd tapped into something important," Starr said. "It's using this physical side of us to extend our identity."
This year, just two weeks before the 38th annual event, D'Agostino's usual ride in honor of a family member became a memorial ride when his 70-year-old cousin, Bruce D'Agostino, died of pancreatic cancer July 22.
Family members say the cancer was due to Bruce D'Agostino's exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. The tactical herbicide was used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In 2003, Mark D'Agostino raised $3,760 through the event, but has upped the bar each year since, he said. In all, D'Agostino has raised almost $70,000 for the Jimmy Fund.
This year, D'Agostino is about $400 shy of his $9,000 goal, which he collects through his profile on the Pan-Mass Challenge website.
People pledge varying amounts to the cause. This year, D'Agostino said he is averaging about $80 a pledge from about 100 people, with about $1,100 in matching funds from Exelon Corporation, which matches employee donations through its corporate giving program.
"Whenever I get tired or think I won't go on, I think of people like Bruce, fighting, who are so heroic," D'Agostino said. "It feels great to keep going and I want to keep fighting for that."