For two young men from Anchorage, Alaska, the journey to a better life after breast cancer begins today, August 23, 2012.
Best friends since childhood, Neil Walsky, 25, and Jesse Frechione, 23, have committed the next four months, the next 6,690 miles, several canisters of bear-repellent and all this other gear to riding their bicycles from Anchorage, Alaska all the way to Cartagena, Colombia in honor of, and to raise awareness for, HERS Breast Cancer Foundation, a charitable foundation whose mission is "to support all women healing from breast cancer by providing post-surgical products and services regardless of financial status" (such products and services include post-mastectomy bras and fittings therefor, breast prostheses and compression garments for the prevention and treatment of breast-cancer-related lymphedena -- i.e., the disfiguring and debilitating swelling of the arm following the surgical removal of lymph nodes adjacent to the breast).
Neil, a former professional hockey player in one of Switzerland's National Leagues and a recent graduate of the University of Idaho with a degree in civil engineering, put his first post-college engineering job at Hattenburg Dilley and Linnell, LLC on hold to make this journey. Jesse, a forest firefighter and geology student at the University of Idaho (who spent his summer working for Hattenburg Dilley and Linnell) is taking the semester off from school. While both are physically fit, between the two, they have less than 1,000 miles of biking under their belts. Only Jesse has any significant first aid experience (he knows CPR). With no research team, Neil and Jesse plotted their route through 10 countries based on their own research. With no corporate sponsorship, no film crew, no support crew carrying food, first aid or protection from the elements and no six-figure book deal awaiting them when they arrive home, they will brave the chilly days and freezing nights riding and camping through Alaska, and will then spend several days wending their way through the Yukon territory, being careful to avoid attracting the attention of hungry and territorial bears.
To stay in touch with loved ones (and the media, including social media), Neil and Jesse will be carrying their cell phones and will keep them charged using solar panels. Their plan is to carry only enough food to get to the next location where they can obtain more food. As they make their way through Washington, Oregon and down the coast of California, there may be occasions on which Neil and Jesse will stay with friends and generous people who have heard of their journey and wish to support it. However, for most of the next four months, and as they continue through Mexico, Guatamala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia, they will pitch tents and cook their own food each night after riding 80 to 100 miles each riding day. At the end, Neil and Jesse expect no finishing-line fanfare, no medals, not even a T-shirt. Instead, they expect to be content with the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing that they did what they set out to do and survived.
Which begs the question: Why?
As Neil explains, "Everyone seems to have that one crazy, amazing, and enlightening adventure that they will never forget; I think this is ours. There will be wrecks, fights, exhaustion, aches and pains, and times where you'd give up anything for a sip of water. And in the end all those experiences add up to one thing, an unforgettable adventure." But surely a journey of such magnitude could not be motivated solely for the physical and mental challenge alone.
And surely, it was not.
In 2011, Neil's mom, Agnes Walsky, an otherwise healthy woman in her mid-50s, was diagnosed with a an aggressive invasive ductal carcinoma (the most common form of breast cancer, and one that is not fully self-contained but has "invaded" or spread to the surrounding breast tissues). She was treated with a lumpectomy, removal of 14 lymph nodes, six months of chemotherapy, seven weeks of radiation and a five-year prescription for an aromatase inhibitor (to suppress the production of estrogen, which fed her cancer). The loss of 14 lymph nodes coupled with an immune system compromised by chemo and radiation meant that Mrs. Walsky was advised to wear a compression garment on her arm to prevent lymphedema. She still wears one while engaging in certain physical activities that could cause a flare of lymphedema.
Neil was confident that his mother would survive her ordeal, which began when she fell on a trip to Switzerland and received a bruise on her breast that did not heal upon her return home to Alaska. Neil had already seen his father Buck fight for his life after a life-threatening trauma and survive against all odds. Neil had faith in his mother's strength and in the medical community, but he took note of the fact that there was little in the way of support AFTER treatment for breast cancer. After all of the treatments are done, he wondered, after all of the friends stop bringing dinner over, what then for the woman who remains emotionally traumatized and physically disfigured? What then for the woman who may not be able to afford the cost of post-mastectomy breast-forms and bras? What then for the woman who can't afford treatment for lymphedema?
Neil expressed to his friends and family his concern and his interest in bringing awareness to this issue. Eventually, he was put in touch with the HERS Breast Cancer Foundation. He found himself drawn to the fact that HERS Breast Cancer Foundation's focus was not so much on breast cancer research as on life after breast cancer. A few months ago, fueled by the thought of making a difference in the lives of women who have gone through what his mom went through, and inspired by the movie The Motorcycle Diaries (the story of a young Che Guevara's motorcycle journey through South America that inspired his life's calling as a revolutionary), Neil approached his long-time friend, Jesse, saying, essentially, "I've come to realize that I am going to make this trip at the end of this summer," to which Jesse replied, "OK, let's do it." As Jesse explains, "Life is short, and when an opportunity strikes like this one you don't sit around and let it pass you by, you seize it and go on a ride of your life."
But both Neil and Mark feel that something Mark Twain once said most accurately captures their feelings about their journey: "Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
And so, with precious little fanfare except for this blog entry and this lone Tweet by @neilwalsky saying, "Our wheels set in motion at 4:30 am AKDT, let the adventures begin!!! #AlaskaToSouthAmerica #breastcancer #cyclingsouth," the adventure began today, Aug. 23, 2012.
I had the honor of speaking with Neil and Jesse just the other day, having been introduced by Veronica Olah and Andria Barrera of Gutenberg Communications. After a lovely afternoon of talking with them about their lives and their goals, I look forward to keeping in touch with them over the next four months and helping them to make a record of their ambitious travels.
You can literally follow Neil and Jesse's progress by clicking on this link, which tracks Neil and Jesse's progress via satellite (cool!).
Or you can Facebook-follow Neil and Jesse on Facebook: Alaska To South America (on Facebook)
To follow Neil on Twitter: @neilwalsky
To hear Neil tell of his reasons for making the trip, check out this short video. It's worth watching, as will be the coverage of their journey. Stay tuned.
For more by Lauren Cahn, click here.
For more on breast cancer, click here.