At 38 years of age and only two years after losing my father to stage 4 colon cancer, I received a diagnosis of stage 2 colon cancer.
It was 2001, and Lance Armstrong was showing the world how to ride a bike. I had taken up cycling after reading his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, and had the idea of making a nearly thousand-mile journey from Alabama to Austin, Texas, to participate in the annual Ride for the Roses. After training for two years, I had a recurrence in my liver and was given a 30 percent chance of beating the disease. I was angry at myself and full of regret for spending all of that time after my first diagnosis on the bike. How selfish could I have been? I had focused on being on my bike, training to be able to ride 100 miles with Lance Armstrong, and I’d missed what was most important of all—time with my son, Dane.
I realized Dane had watched me fight for so long, even if he didn’t know what I was fighting or that my life was in jeopardy. He was now watching me quit.
One April afternoon not long after my recurrence had been discovered, Dane and I were cleaning out our garage when he walked over to my Giant TCR bike hanging on the wall. He turned toward me and looked at me with his big, brown eyes.
"Are you going to start riding your bike again?” I had an easy answer: “No, I don’t think I will.”
He seemed surprised and confused. “I thought you were going to ride with Lance Armstrong in Austin. Are you never going to ride ever again?”
I just stood there speechless, sensing that he was really asking much more. I realized Dane had watched me fight for so long, even if he didn’t know what I was fighting or that my life was in jeopardy. He was now watching me quit. It would probably be how he remembered me later in his life.
“Dane, do you know what is wrong with me?” I asked. I suspected he did.
“You have cancer like Paw-Paw.” I could sense he was looking for some reassurance and confidence in my voice—just as I had been that day I walked into Dad’s hospital room seven years earlier.
At first, I didn’t know how to handle the conversation, so I just let it flow in hopes of picking his brain to learn what he was thinking. “How long have you known?”
“I don’t know. A long time.” His eyes shifted away. I knew he was worried that his dad’s fate would be the same as my own dad’s had been.
I looked over at the bike. Dust had accumulated on the rims and seat. The tires were completely flat. I said, “Dane, if I get you a road bike like mine, would you ride with me?” It was a way that I could fight the disease and still spend quality time with him. And he could share in my battle. It was the perfect solution.
He turned back toward me, and his eyes lit up. “Yeah, I would love that. Will you really buy me one?” A big grin came across his face.
My heart was content as I offered, “Yeah, I will. When I get my bike fixed up, we’ll go get you one.”
I was happy. I knew I had to start the fight again, even if I started from less than nothing. I said I was going to Austin, and I needed to go. It could be the most memorable thing Dane would ever see me do, and I might have only one shot at it.
“I promise you, Dane, I am getting back on that bike, and I will go to Austin. And you will see me cross that finish line.” As the promise crossed my lips, I wondered if it was one I could keep.
On Oct. 25, 2005, I completed the Ride for the Roses as Dane watched me cross the finish line.
—Tracy Stewart lives in Jacksonville, Ala. He is a systems manager for the U.S. Department of Justice in Birmingham.