Like so many others at the first Pelotonia fundraising bicycle ride in 2009, Sandi Parsons rode for others.
“I lost my best friend, Judy Childs, to breast cancer and I rode for her and for other friends and family members [diagnosed with cancer],” she said.
Over the years, Parsons, 70, has continued to ride in Pelotonia. But now, in addition to riding for others, Parsons rides for herself as part of her ongoing cancer journey. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 and ovarian cancer a few weeks after the 2022 Pelotonia ride. Parsons is one of the hundreds of “survivors” who ride every year.
“Cancer has changed my life,” Parsons said. “It gives you a scare and the realization that tomorrow isn’t promised.”
Pelotonia will celebrate its 15th ride weekend August 4 – 6. The event has raised more than $264 million, and every dollar raised funds research at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital. Pelotonia has funded cutting-edge research, new treatments, clinical trials, the recruitment of world-class researchers, and the new Pelotonia Institute of Immuno-Oncology. Pelotonia has also funded four statewide programs that promote early detection and better outcomes for patients with colorectal, lung, endometrial and breast cancers.
Parsons is a retired administrative assistant who worked in the transplant department of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. She began cycling in the 1990s and rode the 100-mile route from Columbus to Athens in the first Pelotonia. “The big thing to me was everywhere along the route there were people standing on the streets with signs thanking you and cheering you on,” she said. “It was amazing.”
The experience inspired Parsons to keep riding every year (she did miss the 2011 ride). In March 2018, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had her first meeting with her James oncologist on March 16 … her 65th birthday.
Treatment included chemotherapy prior to surgery, followed by a lumpectomy to remove the tumor in her breast, and then radiation. Her final chemotherapy treatment was a few weeks before Pelotonia. “Initially, I didn’t think I could ride in Pelotonia, but then I decided I had to ride,” she said, adding the ride was a “rollercoaster of emotions … I’m so proud of my riding that after all I went through, it was so emotional and when I got off my bike at the finish I cried.”
Parsons has four daughters, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Several family members were at the finish line in Gambier in 2018.
“Being at the finish line is something that’s always been hard for us even before her [breast cancer] diagnosis,” said Brittny Sharma, one of Parsons’ daughters. “Just thinking about all the family and friends we’ve lost and all the people cheering on their loved ones going through their cancer is very emotional.”
Inspired by his mother-in-law, Brittny’s husband, Shaman Sharma, a Columbus firefighter, created his own peloton (Pelotonia team of cyclists) in 2019. The team, The First Responders Community, is comprised of firefighters and first responders and their friends and family members.
“She’s definitely tough,” Brittny Sharma said of her mother. “And when it comes to talking about herself, she doesn’t like that spotlight. It’s rare that she gets emotional talking about herself, but we see her emotions come out when she talks about others [dealing with cancer].”
Parsons had her lumpectomy surgery a few weeks after the 2018 Pelotonia ride, responded very well and was cancer free. And then …
“I wasn’t feeling well in 2022,” Parsons said. She got COVID in May “and after that I just couldn’t get my energy level back up.” Nevertheless, she rode in Pelotonia, riding 50 miles instead of 100. Soon after the ride, an ultrasound for a urinary tract issue discovered a mass in Parson’s pelvis that turned out to be ovarian cancer.
“I was very lucky,” Parsons said. “Usually, ovarian cancer isn’t diagnosed until State 4, but mine was Stage 3 and hadn’t spread. But it was very scary. Ovarian cancer doesn’t have as high a cure rate as breast cancer because it’s so often diagnosed in the later stages.”
Surgery was followed six rounds of chemotherapy that ended on February 24.
Parsons plans on riding in Pelotonia this year. “It’s important to keep raising funds for research and it’s important for me,” she said. “It’s a statement that I can still do it.”
She is also determined to raise awareness and educate other women about ovarian cancer. Because the symptoms can be subtle and are often overlooked, far too many women aren’t diagnosed until their cancer is in the later stages and is more difficult to treat. “Know your body, know the symptoms and share this with every woman you know,” Parsons said of the message she tells others.