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“How much time will I have to stay away from my bike?!”
I swear that question was the first one to cross my mind when my doctor said the most terrifying words I had ever heard: “Yes, it is cancer”. Only after that I thought about chemo, mastectomy, baldness, and nausea.
“Do you think I will be able to ride my bike during treatment?!” I added. “Absolutely. It will be essential that you do,” he said, smiling with all his heart.
I had never been so fit. Never smoked. Drank socially. Cycled a lot for the past 13 years. And the lump I had found in my left breast while taking shower didn’t even look like a tumor, according to my doctor. Plus, I was young, just 39 years old. But it was cancer. A rare type, called mucinous carcinoma, more common in women over 65 years old.
That was in January 2016, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Everything happened so fast, like the wheels of my bike the day before my surgery, in February.
Chemo started in March.
My boyfriend from New Zealand was a jerk and left my house in April. “I read on the internet that chemo can be dangerous to MY health,” he said while I looked at him thinking my hair could fall at any moment.
I was invited, as the editor of Outside Brazil and Bicycling Brazil magazines, to attend the women’s Tour de France in July – and went there super bald and thin. Oh, I even did Rapha’s Women 100 in July too (yep, during chemo!). In August, my whole body got swollen due to cortisone, adding kilos to my silhouette that simply do not go away. Last chemo session was in September. My new life started in October, and I went to Iran with my brother to celebrate in the beginning of November.
I never stopped cycling during those months. It helped me keep my sanity, even when I was ridiculously fragile and could barely pedal. “You’re the strongest cyclist and the raddest girl I’ve ever met,” my friend Talita told me while I struggled to climb a hill I used to glide up so easily. My eyes were full of tears. But I kept pedaling. It was more than an obsession; it was the force that kept me alive.
A few days before my surgery, world champion Peter Sagan visited Brazil. We cycled together for a few minutes, which briefly made me forget the nightmare I found myself in . My friend and photographer Diego Cagnato asked me that day: “How’s everything?”. I didn’t hesitate: “I have cancer.” On that same week we met again in a party. And he asked me if he could document my treatment with his camera. He was there when I arrived at the hospital around 5 am. When I almost vomited during chemo. When I had my hair cut. When I cried because cancer was nothing compared to the pain of a broken heart…
One year later, I look at these pics and feel grateful for having not only so many wonderful friends to hold my hand but also to have my passion for cycling. My bike was there by my side, and never disappointed me. Never. It may sound a cliché, but it is true – my bike taught me I was stronger than I thought. Cycling was never so wonderful.
Life goes on. Like the pedals of a bike. Tough climbs come and go, as well as fun descents. I’m cured now. Wiser. Still recovering from the treatment. Still trying to get back to my old shape. I will keep going. No matter what.
– Erika Sallum is a São Paulo based journalist currently writing for Outside Brazil and Bicycling Brazil magazines.
– Photos were taken by Diego Cagnato, a photographer based in São Paulo whose work focuses on storytelling.
This article first appeared on PRETTY DAMNED FAST and was republished with the permission of the author and publisher.