A message of hope to go across country

Bikes: A Mount Airy family plants to travel from California to Virginia to raise money for cancer research.

February 20, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The entire McQuin family of Mount Airy fought alongside the oldest son, Bobby, as he battled leukemia. Now that Bobby is in remission, the family has taken on a new project: a cross-country bike tour to raise money for cancer research.

Everybody is going on the trip, which starts in San Diego next month and ends in Virginia Beach, Va., in July. "Everybody" means all 10 McQuins: parents Bob and Beth; Bobby, 19; Sean, 17; Megan, 15; Craig, 9; Amy, 7; Todd, 5; Shannon, 18 months; and Larisa Stone, 29, their foster daughter.

"As we approached Bobby's fifth year of remission, we wanted to do something to commemorate that and to remember all the kids we have known who have died," said Sean.

Bobby, a college sophomore, expects the 4,300-mile ride to be another life-changing experience, not unlike the leukemia fight that consumed his childhood.

"The trip will be like my diagnosis and treatment," he said. "It will take a long time. There are many unknowns. It demands determination, strength and sheer will to keep going. I'll need a lot of help and support."

Bobby has dubbed the four-month trip "One Voice Across America: A Ride to Fight Childhood Cancer," and he is collecting pledges for every mile.

"So much of this trip is like our fight with cancer," said his mother, Beth, 39. "The whole cancer experience affects the whole family dramatically. There is such an analogy here."

Bobby was 8 when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Through grueling chemotherapy and five years of radiation therapy, the family stayed by his bed in the hospital when he was being treated.

The cancer recurred in 1993; Bobby's last option was a bone marrow transplant.

This time, the McQuins moved into a Ronald McDonald house for three months, and they visited him every day. And they helped buoy his spirits. Humor, even a little fraternal teasing about "bald Bobby, pale as a ghost," had a positive effect, he said.

"Sean can goad me into just about anything," said Bobby. "With him along on the bike trip, I know I will finish."

Sean, Megan and their father, Bob, 42, will pedal with Bobby -- single file for safety's sake.

Craig, whose bone marrow saved Bobby's life, expects to bike about half the distance each day and then ride with his mother and younger siblings in the family van.

The McQuins leave Mount Airy on Feb. 28, traveling by car with bike racks to California. The itinerary includes visits to children's cancer centers.

"We want to show off Bobby, show them you can get through cancer," said Sean. "Leukemia killed his immune system, basically made him a shell. But look at him now."

A robust young man clad in colorful bike togs can be an inspiration for those just diagnosed and for their parents, said Bobby. "I can show people it can be done," he said.

"This is not a death sentence," he said. "You can fight this and you can beat this."

The visits will "give back to all the organizations who have helped us through the years," including the Make a Wish Foundation and Ronald McDonald houses, where families of long-term patients stay.

When Bobby was hospitalized at Children's National Medical Center in Washington for the transplant, his family was "two minutes from the hospital," said Sean.

Since the McQuins established a World Wide Web site (www.onevoiceusa.com), they have had e-mail requests for visits from many families coping with childhood cancer.

"We have had heartbreaking messages from families and donations to encourage us," said Beth. "I am so glad we are doing this for them."

For the past six months, the McQuins have transformed their home into a training center. The living room is filled with bikes; the dining room is covered with maps detailing their route. The children are home-schooled, and their mother has incorporated the geography of the trip and the dynamics of biking into her lesson plans.

"It is not as hard as it looks on the map," said Sean. "The hardest part is getting up every day and saying, `I am going to go 50 miles.' We will have to try not to think how bad we ache. It won't matter anyway, because we said we are going to do this."

Attitude plays heavily into the success of these trips, said Kevin Condit, a cross-country cyclist and marketing director for Adventure Cycling, the Montana company that helped plan the McQuins' route. Even on the southern route in springtime, the family can still expect to hit bad weather, possibly snow.

"This is a physically challenging endeavor," said Condit. "The effect is cumulative. The first day is not so tough, but the 37th day is. Really, physical ability has less to do with it than mental attitude. A family that had the emotional strength to fight a disease together probably has the mental toughness it needs."

As long as they can maintain 300 miles per week, the McQuins should reach their destination by early July.

"We have to be flexible; it's not so much per day as it is per week," said Beth. "Cyclists have warned us that we will have to adjust our plans for the weather."

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