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Ride of a Lifetime

 

Andy Brooks Crosses Canada to Fight Cancer

Andy Brooks (right) rode tandem with Peter Murk in the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride

Andy Brooks (right) rode tandem with Peter Murk in the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride

Riding a bike across Canada is no easy task, especially when you have only 19 days to do it.

Andy Brooks, 17, from Oakville, Ontario, arrived home at the end of June after cycling from Vancouver to Halifax with 49 other riders as part of the inaugural Sears National Kids Cancer Ride. They rode day and night in wind, rain, fog and even snow, making it to Halifax on June 20, the day they had set at the beginning.

It was a triumph in more ways than one for Brooks, who was diagnosed with cancer at age three. While growing up, he received 90 adult doses of radiation and underwent 11 hours of neurosurgery to remove most of a tumour in his brain. After 10 years of treatment, Brooks went into remission, only to acquire epilepsy and become blind as a result of cancer treatment. At the time, he says, his disabilities felt overwhelming. He was afraid to leave the house and didn’t think he would walk on his own again.

Then, last September, Brooks and other teens with cancer were invited to meet Lance Armstrong, who was giving a talk at a local company. Meeting a fellow cancer survivor who had beaten the odds and won the Tour de France for seven consecutive years was a rush for Brooks. He was surprised at Armstrong’s laid-back approach. “You think of him as powerful but he wasn’t,” recalls Brooks. “He was like a normal guy and always cracking jokes.”

It was at this time that co-founders Jeff Rushton and Louisa Cantelon announced the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride. They challenged riders to a 19-day, 7,600-kilometre trek across Canada, and each participant had to raise at least $12,000 for children’s cancer research and summer camps.

Something must have clicked in Brooks’ mind at that point, because he decided to challenge himself as Armstrong did. Admitting the champion cyclist was his inspiration, Brooks told his mother he was going to sign up for the ride and prepare himself to cycle eight hours a day.

Only 16 years old, Brooks was the youngest and least athletic rider, and he had his work cut out for him. His lack of fitness caught up with him the first time he tried a training bike. After five minutes, Brooks ended up slumped over the handlebars, asking for oxygen and feeling nauseous.

“I thought he wouldn’t be able to do this,” says Brooks’ mother, Janice, “but he built it up slowly, 10 to 15 minutes at a time, and now he can ride for hours without it really bothering him.”

Through the support of his family, friends, neighbours and school, Brooks raised an impressive $50,000. In one single day, his high school, White Oaks Secondary, raised $27,000 through donations, raffles and bake-offs, as well as a stationary bike event in which teams of students and teachers pedalled for the fastest times.

Because of his limited eyesight, Brooks rode tandem with another rider, Peter Murk. The two became very close, and Murk came to regard his young partner like a son. “I think Andy has an incredible amount of potential,” says Murk. “When I first met him, he was very, very quiet, and you really had to pry to get things out of him, but now he has really started to open up, and I am glad to be part of that.”

Brooks’ mother, who is a nurse-case manager, and his guide dog, Boston, helped manage medication and epilepsy seizures during the ride. Brooks and Boston have been loyal friends since they met at the Sir James Dunn Guide Dog Training Centre in Oakville last year.

Brooks boasts that Boston can detect seizures before they happen, hold him steady while he is shaking, and bark for help. The riders and crew named Boston the unofficial team mascot, as he attracted many supporters and children with his kind eyes and gentle demeanour.

Andy's guide dog, Boston, was the cycling team's unofficial mascot

Andy’s guide dog, Boston, was the cycling team’s unofficial mascot

Many of the children that Brooks and Boston met along the route had cancer or leukemia. At the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, the riders visited a beautiful outdoor playground where kids and their parents could take a break from the hospital just a few metres away. There, doctors and young patients – many on stretchers with IV poles – came to thank the team for their hard work. “It really touched me,” says Brooks. “We are riding this epic journey and they are going through their own journey. [When we met] each other, the riders understood why we [were] doing this.”

During the 19 days on the road, the riders showed the effects of sleep deprivation. There were many days when the team slept as little as three hours. But when Brooks’ health became ragged and he sometimes felt irritable and emotional, his heart continued to beat strong for the cause. “Kids with cancer have to deal with chemotherapy 24/7, and you know, I only have to deal with this ride for 19 days,” says Brooks. “I can put up with the pain of cycling when I know what they are going through.”

Brooks believes that since his incredible journey, he has matured and is not the same shy, isolated boy he used to be. He has come to understand that being blind and having epilepsy does not keep him from trying new things, something that he has proven not only to himself, but also to anyone who might have doubted him.

Brooks has become passionate about cycling and plans to make it a lifelong sport. He even saved up money all summer to get a tattoo of a bike’s front sprocket on the back of his calf muscle, a reminder of what he has accomplished. Brooks has also discovered his love for helping people, especially children, and hopes to become a teacher.

“A year ago I was fat, lazy and on the couch. I didn’t have the motivation to be active,” says Brooks. “Once I decided to do this, things changed dramatically. Everything became different. I got active, I got motivated, and now I want to help people.”

For information about next year’s Sears National Kids Cancer Ride, visit
www.nationalkidscancerride.com.

 

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