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Reader essay: After cancer comes 4,000 miles

Tom Backof, a Baltimove native and biology grad student at Indiana University-Purdue University, hasn’t been in school for a while. He’s been too busy battling cancer and, most recently, biking 4,000 miles across the country with 4K for Cancer, a Baltimore-based nonprofit.

In summer 2010, Backof was diagnosed with diffuse large b-cell lymphoma and underwent surgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital to remove a 4.5-pound tumor from between his lung and chest wall. In April, he underwent another surgery to boost his breathing capacity, then at 55 percent. To participate in the 4K for Cancer, he had to be able to lift his 30-pound bike, and he got physically prepared just in time for departure May 29 from Baltimore for San Francisco.

b spoke to Backof while he was in Fallon, Nev., bedding down at a community center. He couldn’t remember whether it was day 62 or 63 of the trip – “It’s hard to keep track,” he said. The 4K, a trek in which riders raise funds for cancer research, meet patients and spread cancer awareness, ended Saturday, also Backof’s 27th birthday.

Sans Web access, Backof couldn’t write an essay, but he talked to us on the phone.

Knowing cancer
“When I was first diagnosed, my mom was ... the president of a breast cancer charity. I went to a support group, my main question being ‘What do I need to know so I don’t die from the surgery/chemo?’ But it was a bunch of 60-year-old women with breast cancer, talking about the cosmetic aspect, etc. No relation to my situation.”
Ultimately, he found a support group with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

What he said before the ride: “Many smaller experiences [will be] more memorable and difficult than the overall journey. It is my hope that through small connections and gestures that I (we) can make a large difference to people affected by this disease.”
60 days in: “That’s exactly what happened. You just remember these certain moments, these people. ‘Do you remember day 12?’ someone will ask. ‘No, I don’t remember that.’ ‘The day we had that great lunch with those people…’ ‘Oh yeah!’ I remember, for example, one woman, she really touched us. She was saying how much we’d inspired her, helped her, and we just said, ‘You made us an amazing dinner. You are an amazing person. You’ve helped us a great deal more than we can ever help you.’ It’s all these little things that add up.”

“Crossing Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park was the toughest day of my life. 12,183 feet — everyone else did it reasonably well, but it was damn near impossible for me. I was struggling to find breath. Every other challenging thing after that we’ve had, I’ve told myself, it’s not Trail Ridge.  ... There’s a welcome center a couple hundred feet down from the summit. Everyone’s there, cheering, and there’s so much love. There’s no way any of us could do this without the team.”

The team
“There was one day where I was biking and there was a dog barking at me, so I swerved to avoid it and fell on a cut I had. And a mile down the road, I ran into more dogs and fell again. It was one of those days where nothing goes right. Every day, someone else on the team has a horrible day, but the rest of the team is there to pick them up. The team is my support group now. We would not be doing this without everyone else on the team.”

Why he rides
“One of the biggest reasons I did this trip was to return to the real world, mentally and physically to get back into shape in the real world, after a year off. You discover great mental reserves you have.”
“Both my parents and my grandpa were diagnosed with cancer within the last five years. I ride for them.”

To support 4K for Cancer, go to

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