Cancer survivor ready for ride of a lifetime

Annapolis man joining annual Tour of Hope

September 29, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,SUN STAFF

Lance Armstrong and Chris Millard share an important number -- seven -- and today, they'll be sharing a bike ride.

The seven-time Tour de France winner and Millard, an Annapolis resident who seven years ago had cancer surgery and treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital, will pedal out of San Diego to begin a cross-country campaign to raise money and awareness for cancer research and clinical trials.

"The bike ride is kind of secondary to getting the word out so people don't end up like me," said Millard.

Armstrong's Tour of Hope, in its third year, will feature six teams of four riders taking turns pedaling across a dozen Southern states. The nine-day tour concludes Oct. 8, with a fundraising ride from Howard County Community College to the Ellipse in Washington with the world's most famous cyclist. Organizers expect 1,500 participants, who each raised $500 to ride along.

The 24 riders come from across the country and range in age from 28 to 58. They have all been touched by the disease, when it invaded their bodies or that of a loved one or one of their patients. There are participants still grieving a loss, researchers working on miracle drugs, and doctors and nurses who administer them. One, Dr. Keith Bellizzi, 35, of Montgomery Village, is both a researcher and a survivor of testicular and kidney cancers.

"You never want to feel sorry for yourself, because you look to your left and you look to your right, and there's someone who's had it worse," Millard said.

Inspiring crowds

He has talked to previous year's riders about their experiences and is ready to make one of his own.

"The big rallies are fantastic, ... but what really inspired them and caught them off guard was when they went through a sleepy little town at 2:30 in the morning and literally the whole town was out," he said.

Like Armstrong, Millard refused to consider that he had cancer when he first discovered a lump the size of a quarter behind his right shoulder in 1997.

"I thought muscle strain and calcium deposit. I had every excuse under the sun. I said, `If it's there in a month, I'll get it looked at.' And one month stretched to two and then to three," Millard recalled. "My male hormones and stupidity kicked in, and I let it go for 11 months."

When the tumor grew to the size of a softball and he began feeling pain, "that was my kick in the pants," said Millard, 39, a fisheries biologist with the Department of Natural Resources. "I'm a guy who had anatomy classes and physiology classes. You'd think I'd know better."

In November 1997, he went to an Annapolis doctor.

"I knew it was bad when I pulled my shirt off. He did not have a good look on his face," Millard said.

The biopsy was positive. The cancer was a high-grade, soft-tissue sarcoma.

Millard remained upbeat as he considered his options. "I never really had the feel it was a death sentence," he said. "I felt I was indestructible."

As a newly hired employee at that time, Millard's health insurance coverage hadn't kicked in.

"I was looking at bankruptcy and cancer at the same time," he said.

When his older brother began searching for clinical trials, Millard was dubious. "I thought clinical trials were for people who were terminally ill," he said, shaking his head.

The day after his diagnosis, Millard had an appointment with Dr. Frank J. Frassica, chairman of the orthopedic surgery department at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"I knew we could save his arm. ... The big question was: Had the cancer spread?" Frassica recalled. "With a tumor that size, he had a greater than 50 percent chance that [cancerous] seeds had spread to other parts of his body."

Frassica began an aggressive campaign that included radiation before surgery to kill the edges of the tumor and postoperative chemotherapy to destroy the seeds.

The surgery in March 1998 left a gaping 12-inch hole where muscle used to be. Frassica and Dr. Bernard W. Chang, a plastic surgeon at Mercy Medical Center, replaced missing muscle with muscle from the other side of Millard's back and rewired the blood vessels and nerves to his arm.

As a result, Millard said, he looks "like I was bitten by a shark on one side and hit by a cannonball on the other. I put myself through more pain than I had to. But I owe everything to the folks at Hopkins."

As he recovered, Millard began getting back in shape. A mountain biker for 18 years, he went out and bought a road bike four years ago in one of those "life's too short" moments.

Getting the call

Last year, he rode the final leg of the Tour of Hope from North Bethesda to Washington, which inspired him to apply for this year's ride.

Ten days after he sent in the paperwork, tour organizers called to say he was chosen one of the finalists from about 1,100 applicants. A video conference and interview followed.

Toward the end of May, tour officials phoned Millard at home to tell him he would be riding with Armstrong.

"I maintained my composure while I was on the phone, but afterward I was jumping around the room and acting like a 6-year-old," he said, grinning at the thought.

Since then, he has been riding about 16 hours a week, following the training regiment created by Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's coach.

"It's been a goal of mine to be an advocate for cancer research and trials," Millard said. "This is my best chance to make good on that promise."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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