It's more than 1,300 miles from Key Highway in Baltimore to Key West, Fla. — a car drive lasting a couple days or a flight lasting a few hours. Or, in the case of Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle, an eight-day bike ride.
Lemle was one of 17 cyclists to take part in the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults' first Key to Keys Ride last month — a trip to raise awareness and funds for the organization that provides help for young people affected by cancer.
Lemle knows firsthand what it means to be a young adult facing down cancer. In 1999, when Lemle was 27, he noticed a sharp pain in his lower back — a pain he thought the result of lifting a too-heavy amplifier at one his rock band's gigs. The pain was kept at bay with Tylenol, but came back every now and then over the next several months as Lemle lost weight. In quick succession, Lemle said, there was a lump above his left collarbone, a fever, night sweats, and the back pain returning to a severe degree.
The diagnosis was Hodgkin's lymphoma. And despite the friends and family that rallied around him, Lemle felt alone.
"Cancer is so frightening, and there's this duality in that you're facing it alone but you need other people," he said. "No one should have to face cancer alone, but at the same time, everyone does. That fear you have when someone says to you that you're really sick — you can be married, have brothers, have an awesome group of friends — you're the only one who has to face the fight in that moment. You're sick, sick with a capital S, and it's not a contradiction to say, 'I'm alone' in the same breath as 'I need other people.' "
Lemle said that aloneness also lends itself to solidarity and is unifying among cancer survivors.
"Every battle is different," Lemle said. "But they all have this common element: You're fighting for your life. It comforting to talk about it with others now, people who are in the thick of it and people who are in remission."
Lemle, 41, has been in remission for 14 years now, and wanted to do the Key to Keys Ride because of the work Ulman Cancer Fund does: connecting people with resources.
"When I was sick, I didn't want to talk to a counselor or the chaplain or a support group," he said. "I think I was probably cured before I ever talked to anyone else who had a similar illness. It took a long time for me to connect the dots, and I realized that this kind of work is really important, and I could help do it."
Founded in 1997 by Howard County native and cancer survivor Doug Ulman — brother to County Executive Ken Ulman — the Ulman Cancer Fund provides assistance for young adults affected by cancer. In the organization's history, it has raised more than $7 million to support the fight against cancer — money that goes to a scholarship program, cancer research and support programs.
As part of the Key to Keys ride April 6-13, Lemle and the other cyclists rode their bikes down the coast in shifts: 200 miles a day divided into four legs, so a smaller group would cycle about 50 miles a day. They made stops in Charlottesville, Va., Durham, N.C., Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head in South Carolina, and St. Mary's, Vero Beach and Miami in Florida before reaching Key West. At each stop, the group visited with local community and cancer centers to talk about their ride and the mission of the Ulman Cancer Fund.
"This is more than just a ride," Ulman Cancer Fund Chief Operating Officer and Key to Keys ride director Brian Satola said in a news release. "We are making a statement about young adult cancer. With nearly 70,000 young adults being diagnosed with cancer every year, we want everyone to know that cancer impacts far too many people."
All told, the team raised more than $84,000 — money, Lemle said, that went to hiring a full-time patient navigator at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. Though he returned to Maryland with sore legs, Lemle said he's going to continue fundraising — this time for the 24 Hours of Booty in August in Columbia's Gateway Business Park, a biking and fundraising event now in its fifth year. The event that benefits LIVESTRONG and the Ulman Cancer Fund is expected to raise more than $250,000 for cancer research and draw more than 500 cyclists.
"This is going to be fantastic," Lemle said. "For me, this has been 14 years in the making, and events like this are exhausting but they're worth it."