By Eleanor Wiseman
We all suffered from the pandemic. For me, it’s been some of the scariest days of my life. It’s taken me many iterations to find the right way to write this. On the one hand, my personality pushes me to move on by minimizing what I am going through; on the other hand, I feel the need to accurately paint the reality to inform others, break taboos but also to honor other cancer patients’ journeys and acknowledge the stress I’ve imposed on my support network.
March 2020 – my phone rings. It’s not great news – the test results from my thyroid biopsy are back: I have thyroid cancer. For the few weeks prior, I had known the nodules in my neck were suspicious but had convinced myself it wasn’t going to be cancer: I felt fine, had just survived long work weeks with a hard block of training and had gotten myself a top 10 GC spot at Valley of the Sun stage race with my Los Gatos Bicycle Racing Club teammates. I now had to face the fact that this was actually cancer. I was terrified of what lied ahead. The uncertainty about getting treatment with hospitals cancelling appointments due to Covid-19 didn’t make it any easier. Not only my body had decided to get cancer but it had chosen the exact time where the whole world was in chaos. I had to figure out my next steps quickly as borders were closing. Being far away from my family who lives in Belgium while navigating cancer treatment in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t optimal but leaving California meant leaving my life, partner and work with no guarantee of being allowed back in the country anytime soon. Less than 24 hours later, I was on my way to the airport.
A couple of days later, I am in surgery. Unfortunately, the doctors found that my cancer had already spread: they had therefore removed my whole thyroid as well as numerous lymph nodes in my neck and sadly, my treatment wasn’t going to be as straightforward as we had hoped. In the next 9 months, I’ll have to go through rounds of radioactive iodine treatment (which involves ingesting radiation to kill the cancerous cells in my body) followed by isolation days in the hospital as I would become radioactive and a threat to others. In addition to the uncertainty related to the cancer itself, I was scared of what a life without a thyroid meant for me. Thyroids regulate our metabolism, energy levels, mood, temperature, heart rate and much more. All of those things are obviously crucial for athletes and despite spending hours researching whether removing my thyroid meant the end of any competitive endeavors for me, the little information I found wasn’t exactly reassuring but I still had faith it could be done. Without a thyroid, my body isn’t able to produce thyroid hormones and I have to take a pill every day instead. It took (at least what seems to me like) a really long time to find the right dosage. I’ll skip the details, but since April, it hasn’t always been easy and has involved months of extreme fatigue, lethargy, mood swings, etc. As athletes, we are used to being in tune with how our bodies feel and (roughly) know what works for us in terms of nutrition, recovery, habits but my cancer has forced me to have to slowly re-discover what is right for me now.
A few hours before jumping on the plane to Belgium, I had bought a smart trainer: Europe was in lockdown at the time and I figured that if I was going to have to quarantine, I needed something to get my mind off things. Never did I think that this piece of equipment would change the way my next 9 months were going to look like and the help it would provide me both physically and mentally during my cancer treatment. I’ve never been an indoor trainer person. Until then virtual riding/racing was extremely intimidating to me (it still is but a little less now) and I thought it was only for the pros (have you seen some of those power numbers!). But I wanted to continue to ride my bike, despite being sick. Everything around me felt like it was collapsing: Covid-19, my health, not knowing when I would be allowed back in the US and cycling seemed to be the only remaining “normal” aspect of my life. And biking ended up being what I needed: it helped me get through my treatments by making me stronger and it certainly helped me mentally by giving me a sense of purpose. Of course, we adjusted my training and for a while it was just about making it onto my bike. But virtual cycling opened a world of possibilities for me. I could just spin without having to face the dangers of riding outside while being weaker. I also had my family right there if anything went wrong and it even allowed me to stay connected to my cycling community despite being on another continent. And my trainer became specifically helpful in the weeks following each radiation treatment when I wasn’t allowed to be close to other people, being radioactive myself. I’d be locked up in the basement, radioactive but having fun!
Despite becoming comfortable with being an avatar on a screen, virtual racing remained scary. I remember doing a virtual race just to “try it out” and pretty much got dropped instantly. Then a teammate asked me whether I wanted to race for the Amy D Foundation who was putting a team together for the Pro races of the Echelon Series on RGT. RGT is a different platform to Zwift that simulates existing roads and the Echelon Series includes a lineup of 8 weekends of races. I liked the idea, especially since some of the races featured were the ones I aspire to race in real life and others I had actually planned to target had Covid-19 not hit and if I hadn’t gotten sick. I had raced with the Amy D Foundation on a composite team at the Cascade Cycling Classic in 2019, have always looked up to this team and been amazed at the work it is doing for women cycling. I said yes – quite frankly without really knowing what I was getting myself into, convincing myself that even if I ended up not liking virtual racing I could use it as my preparation for an “in real life” season with my new team in 2021.
Being relatively inexperienced to Zwift, the transfer to RGT wasn’t a big deal for me. That isn’t to say that I did not suffer from “virtual mechanicals”: my “favorite” ones include getting kicked out mid-way through the first ever race of the series and getting a big fat DNF (a good start to the series!) or getting a power drop at the worse place up the Mogollon climb at the Tour of the Gila, having made the breakaway. I am still terrified before every race that my WIFI may let me down or that my trainer could disconnect at any moment, but I guess that’s part of the race. It’s certainly been a very steep learning curve for me – from figuring out what a good indoor setup looks like (I am still pretty much a rookie) as well as understanding how the physics of virtual racing work. I am pleased to report that progressively I’ve been able to race (even making the podium a few times) and that so far it has been an absolute blast! There are many benefits that come with virtual racing. For me personally, I have had to travel a lot with my treatments being in Belgium and the virtual nature of the series has allowed me to race wherever I am. I’ve also been able to race and support my team even when I wasn’t feeling 100% or when radiation therapy was scheduled just before a race. More generally, it is pretty cool to race against world class athletes from all around the world in the midst of a pandemic! I also like that it encourages more aggressive racing since the costs of attending are minimized when traveling is no longer necessary. Lastly, it reduces gender inequalities prevalent in cycling with men and women having access to the same races and equal broadcast time; as well as limits the advantages related to bikes and equipment (which has been huge for me being a low budget PhD student). Beyond it all, I’ve been amazed by the cohesion of my Amy D Foundation teammates (despite not meeting everyone face to face), the support from our DS Julie and the camaraderie of the other riders in the field! We race really hard against each other but there is also a sense of community and connection that (maybe counter-intuitively) seems to go beyond what I’ve experienced in real life racing.
I am looking forward to the last few races on the Echelon Series calendar. I will always remember the Amy D foundation, RGT and the Echelon Series as my introduction to the world of virtual racing and opening up new opportunities for me. But I will above all remember how this has helped me physically and mentally during my cancer treatment. I am unfortunately not quite done with my treatment yet but do hope to continue biking through it. I cannot thank enough the people around me who have supported me throughout and continue to do so including my whole family, partner, friends, coach, teammates, training buddies and teams who have welcomed me despite my current health issues. Also a huge shoutout to all my doctors who continue to cure me while supporting the idea that (as my oncologist would say) “sport is good for you mentally and physically, so just go ride”.