The obstacles along the route look daunting on the map.
Over the course of a three-day ride, Erin Sutton will bike 220 miles along the coastline of southern California. She’ll face climbs of more than 5,000 feet.
Hugging the Pacific Ocean coast, the road will twist and turn through mountains and urban centers, often in the same day.
The 39-year-old mother of four has been preparing for the trek, even through she’s a cycling novice.Considering what she’s already overcome, she’s not concerned.
2002 and 2007
Type of cancer
Invasive ductal carcinoma
Chemotherapy, lumpectomy and radiation the first time; double mastectomy and chemotherapy the second time.
What cancer taught me
Cancer taught me to accept help when offered. It’s a hard thing to do, but during treatment it was so helpful to not need to cook, or pick up the kids.
How cancer changed me
Cancer changed me in many ways, some good, some bad. I’m less quick to judge people, everyone is going through something.
What I would tell someone just diagnosed with cancer
I would tell someone who was just diagnosed to be kind to themselves, take it easy when you need to, cancer and it’s treatments are hard, save your energy for the things that really matter.
Sutton has been diagnosed and beaten breast cancer. Twice. Before her 40th birthday.
Considered a young survivor, she faced challenges that most cancer patients never experience.
Because her ovaries were removed as part of her treatment, she went through menopause in her mid-30s. She had four young children, the youngest was 2, but no energy due to the chemotherapy treatments.
In an effort to help other young women in similar situations, Sutton is training for the 220-mile Tour de Pink bike race in California this fall. The event will raise money for the Young Survival Coalition, a nonprofit organization that specializes in helping women under 40 who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
“They’re still worried about having babies or being around the children they have. Just because you’re in your 20s, people think it can’t be cancer. It can happen,” she said.
On a steamy summer evening, Sutton pushed off from her Franklin home for her daily ride.
She has been training five days a week since late July, working her way up from 10 miles each ride to eventually 60 miles. Tour de Pink organizers have set up a schedule that she follows in order to tackle the hills of coastal California.
As a preschool assistant at St. Rose of Lima Catholic School, she tried to get as much of her training in as she could before school started.
Her rides have started in Franklin, going from her home to Blue Heron Park and following the Greenway Trail through the city. As her endurance has improved, Sutton has joined area group rides, traversing through the rural areas east of Greenwood to get a feel for road riding.
“I’m getting better. The hardest thing is getting used to sitting in the seat for so long,” she said.
Here, gone, back again
Sutton was 29 when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. She had watched as a protrusion under the skin of her right breast grew to about 2 inches wide, the size of a small plum.
Her doctor immediately sent her to a breast surgeon, where a needle aspiration was taken. The surgeon didn’t suspect cancer but wanted her to get a mammogram anyway.
“They took a biopsy right there and tested it while we were still waiting. We waited, and they came back to say it was cancer. They sent me right down to see an oncologist,” Sutton said.
Her doctor recommended that Sutton get chemotherapy treatment before surgery to remove the tumor. She went through four rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor as small as possible before her lumpectomy. Two more rounds of chemo would hopefully kill any remaining cancer cells, as would 34 doses of radiation therapy.
The information bombarded Sutton. She didn’t even know that women as young as her could get breast cancer. Now, she had to worry about chemotherapy ports and radiation burns.
Her four children — Stephen, Katie, Shannon and Emma — ranged in age from 12 to 2. How would she have time to raise them, keep a house and deal with cancer treatment, she thought.
The entire treatment process took seven months to finish, but afterward, Sutton was found to be in remission.
“My prayers had been answered,” she said.
But just weeks shy of the five-year anniversary of her remission, her doctor found another lump. She had been scheduled to get her regular mammogram, which didn’t show any abnormalities. But her doctor felt a mass in the breast and, knowing Sutton’s history, had a biopsy taken on the spot.
The cancer this time was an invasive ductile carcinoma, a more aggressive and dangerous type. Her breast surgeon recommended a double mastectomy to help ensure that cancer never came back. Intense chemotherapy would ensure all of the cancer cells were killed but would result in crippling nausea. She also would need her ovaries removed to stop the production of estrogen in her body.
“I was 34 at that point. It was devastating,” she said.
Both times she was diagnosed, Sutton relied on her friends and family to help her get through. Her husband, Noel, cooked and cleaned the house while she was sick from chemotherapy.
Her children helped her with chores and brought her blankets, pillows and cold drinks when she felt sick.
Members of their church, St. Rose of Lima Parish in Franklin, cooked meals and helped watch the children during Sutton’s doctor appointments.
When she was receiving treatment the second time, it was Christmas time. Noel Sutton was worried about providing a good holiday for their kids, despite being overwhelmed with his wife’s treatment.
The support system around stepped up more than he could have imagined.
“We had more presents under the tree that year than we ever had before, all anonymous donations, basically,” Noel Sutton said.
Help for younger patients
But after the second occurrence, she also looked for counseling groups of patients going through similar problems. Most of the women in support groups at the hospital were 20 to 30 years older and had a different perspective and reaction to the disease.
So Sutton went online to find others who might know what she was going through. She found the Young Survival Coalition.
“There are unique issues that young women have when they’re diagnosed,” said Lisa Frank, board president for the Young Survival Coalition. Frank was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 36. “Not that we’re shunned or turned away from support groups, but when everyone else with you is 60 or 70, you think that you have nothing in common with them.”
They talked about the frustration of being in your mid-30s and going through the hot flashes and mood swings of menopause. They shared their feelings being young mothers and losing all of their hair.
Women shared how to handle dating after having reconstructive surgery.
“It’s a sounding board. They tell you what worked for them, you can share what worked for you,” she said.
Again, Sutton was determined to be in remission in 2008. But even after finishing her treatment, she continued her involvement with the Young Survival Coalition. She posted her experience on online message boards and tried to use her experience when others had questions about coping through a mastectomy.
But she had a desire to do more.
Sutton was participating in a kayaking trip for young cancer survivors when she met a woman involved with the Tour de Pink.
The fundraising bike rides help support Young Survival Coalition education programs, such as a toll-free phone line for patients and survival kits filled with DVDs, brochures and guides for the newly diagnosed.
Events in California, New York and Atlanta regularly draw more than 900 participants and raise more than $1 million.
“This event really speaks to the people we’re trying to help. We’re young, we’re active, and if breast cancer has stopped us from being active, this is a chance to get back in shape and make our bodies feel better,” Frank said.
‘Out of my comfort zone’
Though she hadn’t been physically active since her second cancer diagnosis and had never been a serious cyclist, she committed.
“Doing the kayaking trip was an awesome experience, so out of my comfort zone, and it was something I thought I’d never do,” Sutton said. “I wanted to keep up with that and bike 220 miles.”
More difficult has been the fundraising aspect of the ride. Each rider is responsible for raising $2,500 in addition to travel money. Sutton has sent out hundreds of letters to local businesses and posted how they can donate on her Facebook page.
After one friend shared the post on Facebook, people donated more than $800.
She also planned a euchre tournament and possibly a parent’s night out to raise additional money.
“I hate asking people, and I’m not very good at it, but this is something I believe in,” she said.
The race will last three days in mid-October, starting outside Los Angeles and ending south of Mission Viejo. They’ll ride the Pacific Coast Highway and pass by landmarks such as Point Mugu State Park, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach.
For Sutton, the ride is a lead-in for the upcoming five-year mark of being in remission. She was diagnosed a second time just before she hit that mark but is confident she will reach the milestone.
And what better way to celebrate than to help some other women who may be struggling with their own diagnosis and treatment.
“Young survivors have different needs. I went to a look-good, feel-better program, and I was probably 40 years younger than anyone else. I needed people my own age to relate to, and so do other women,” she said.
How to Help
Erin Sutton is accepting donations to support her participation in the Young Survival Coalition’s Tour de Pink bike ride.
The event will be from Oct. 12 to 14 in Southern California.
All of the proceeds benefit the Young Survival Coalition, which helps women under the age of 40 deal with breast cancer. Programs include connecting current patients with survivors, resource kits for the newly diagnosed, and online support groups.
Donations are tax-deductible and can be made at ysctourdepink.org/site/TR/TourdePink, clicking on the West Coast ride, and hitting the “Donate” icon.
People can search by Sutton’s name, which will direct you to her direct page.
For more information, email erinYSCTDP@gmail.com.