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How one woman is fighting back against cancer, for herself and others

Meet Caitlin Pietz: Volunteer for ESR and Breast Cancer Thriver

On a sunny day in February, Caitlin Pietz stood in front of a small metal bell as a stream of sunlight cascaded through the windows beside her. With her husband Mark at her side, she proudly gripped the chain that hung from the mouth of the bell. For a moment, she stared out at the faces of the loved ones who surrounded her, pausing to take in the scene. Then, she pulled the rope with palpable excitement. A smile spread across her lips as the lobby filled with a brassy jingle and cheering rang out. At that, a new chapter began. Caitlin had officially finished her treatment at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Volunteering for a Cause that Aims to End Cancer

For Caitlin, ringing the Roswell Park Victory Bell brought new meaning to a movement she’s already been part of for many years — a movement to find new treatments for cancer and, ultimately, save more lives. She’s volunteered for numerous Roswell Park events through the years like the Ride for Roswell and IceCycle. Doing so was her way of honoring her father who passed away from cancer. Her husband, Mark, would ride in these events while Caitlin volunteered.   

In 2017, Mark decided to ride for three days in Empire State Ride, and Caitlin drove him to Weedsport. She stayed for dinner and sat in on the evening program, where she listened to a rider named David talk about his cancer journey. As it turned out, David’s cancer journey closely resembled that of Caitlin’s father, though David had survived and Caitlin’s father had not. After David’s speech, Caitlin gave him a big hug and shared her story. They soon became fast friends.

That serendipitous moment motivated Caitlin to really get involved with Empire State Ride. The next year, she signed on as a weeklong volunteer, making countless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the riders. If you ask her about this, she’ll give you a smirk and say that hers were the best sandwiches, because they were made with love. Of course, she had additional duties, too, like assisting with the evening program and making sure riders with special dietary needs had the fuel and hydration they needed. At the end of the week, she was exhausted but happier than ever.

“I thought, ‘This has been the most tiring but best week of my life.’ It was just so much fun,” Caitlin says. “They talk about the ESR family, and that is no joke. You really do become family with these people.”

Caitlin returned as an ESR volunteer again in 2019 and had planned to return again after the pandemic — until she heard the three words that no one ever wants to hear: 

You have cancer.

Caitlin’s Breast Cancer Diagnosis

Caitlin stands before a crowd after ringing the Roswell Park Victory Bell. Context.

Throughout Caitlin’s volunteer efforts, she never expected to be on the receiving end of her efforts to drive lifesaving cancer research. In 2022, however, Caitlin went to a routine mammogram the day after her 50th birthday. When her doctors sent her for additional testing, including mammograms, biopsies and MRIs, Caitlin knew something was up. Her doctors soon delivered the news that Caitlin had invasive ductal carcinoma, a type of breast cancer.

“That started a journey of 10 months,” Caitlin says. “Two surgeries, a lot of visits in between and then chemo and radiation. And I will say, the journey was tough but the staff at Roswell Park was amazing.”

Caitlin said that the staff at The 11 Day Power Play Resource Center helped her get oriented with the hospital and even walked her through a dry run of what to expect before chemo to make the actual treatment less nerve-racking.

“There was never a point when I didn’t have answers. Roswell Park … I just can’t imagine going any place else,” she says. “The journey wasn't fun — probably the worst 10 months in my life overall. But here I am, on the other side of it, thanks to Roswell; thanks to the amazing doctors and staff and nurses and aides and everybody who has given me a perfectly healthy prognosis going forward.”

Bringing her Volunteer Efforts Full Circle

Despite her struggles, Caitlin says the day she rang the Victory Bell was one of the most emotional and gratifying days of her life. She threw a big party at a restaurant after her bell ringing and about 45 of her closest friends showed up. Almost 80% of them were people she met on the road during Empire State Ride. Many were also in the crowd as the sound of victory rang out after her last treatment, including Dr. Joyce Ohm, Chair of Cancer Genetics and Genomics at Roswell Park and an ESR road warrior.

“I see riders every day and tell them, ‘Those dollars matter. Those $5, $10, $20 donations are going to turn into cures, and they’re going to save lives,” Dr. Ohm says, reflecting on her research efforts.

During the course of Caitlin’s treatment, she saw, firsthand, some of the advancements in treatment options available thanks to research funding raised through events like the Empire State Ride.

At Roswell Park, Caitlin had access to a test that allowed her doctors to personalize her treatment plan based on her genetics and specific type of cancer. This simple genetic test shows whether a patient with breast cancer will benefit from chemotherapy. Though Caitlin’s test showed she would need chemotherapy, an estimated 70% of patients with common forms of breast cancer may not need it as part of their treatment plan.

“Every day during Empire State Ride, we realize why we're all doing this, and it is to raise money to find new treatments for cancer, new research dollars,” Caitlin says.

Dr. Joyce Ohm, Chair of Genetics and Genomics at Roswell Park. ESR road warrior. Clarifying picture

Caitlin’s Favorite Part of the Empire State Ride

For the 2023 Empire State Ride, Caitlin plans to greet her ESR family at the finish line and cheer each and every one of them on for their accomplishment. She’ll also be volunteering that day and hopes that she’ll be able to volunteer for the full week again next year. In the meantime, she’s grateful she can take in her favorite part of the adventure.

“The best part of the whole thing? Seeing that finish line moment,” she says. “It’s so great at the end, because they reach the finish line and everyone’s crying because it was such an emotional week hearing all the survivor and patient stories.”

Will you join Caitlin in her mission to end cancer?

Meet first-time ESR road warrior Laura Jean

Her Journey from Kidney Donor to Road Warrior

For aspiring Empire State Ride road warrior, Laura Jean, this July will look much different than it did just a year ago. She’s set her sights on riding 500+ miles from Staten Island to Niagara Falls for the first time ever. Already, Laura’s envisioning the roar of the crowd at the finish line and the smiling faces waiting to greet her at the end of her weeklong journey.

“I’m an emotional person, so I can guarantee that I’ll probably be sobbing. It’ll be part of the accomplishment: seeing a lot of friends and family and knowing the difference that I’ve made.” She smiles and adds, “and then, I’ll probably feel pure exhaustion, too.”

Of course, that exhaustion will be a different kind of fatigue than what she felt last year.

An act of heroism

On July 11, 2022, Laura lay in the recovery room of her local hospital following a surgery to remove her kidney. Though she is the picture of health, she had committed to donating her kidney — to a perfect stranger.

Prior to the procedure, Laura never once met her recipient, Elena DePaolo. In fact, Laura had come to learn about Elena’s story through Facebook. She considered helping at first, but then Elena’s story disappeared, and Laura assumed she had found a match. Then, a few months later, the story resurfaced. Laura dug a little deeper and saw that she and Elena shared many things in common — like their hometown and several mutual friends, just to name a couple. What was serendipitous about all of this was that both women are adoptive mothers.

Laura Kashishian lies in the hospital before her surgery to remove and donate her kidney

“I just felt really connected at that moment, and I thought that I had to give it a try. By the end of the month, I had reached out to start the process of donating my kidney,” Laura says.

To many, Laura’s act of heroism in the face of a call for help is one for the headlines. For the 40-year-old Niagara Falls native, however, it’s the story of how a stranger became a close friend.

Laura and Elena had a chance to meet in the hospital following the procedure, and now the two regularly get together for coffee or playdates for their kids.

“I met her the day after my transplant, and it was really emotional.” Elena says about their encounter. “When someone does something for you and you can never repay them, all you can think is, ‘She saved my life.’”

“There were lots of hugs and tears and a lot of emotion,” Laura says.

Elena recalls the first time Laura came to her house after the surgery to meet her three-year-old son. “He warmed right up to Laura the first time she came over. He was playing dinosaurs with her, and you could tell he knew she was a good person.”

Now, Laura’s planning to dedicate her Empire State Ride to end cancer to two people: Her mom, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2021, and her new friend Elena, whose battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia started in 2016.

Laura and Elena smile for the camera
Laura and Elena meet in the hospital for the first time after their surgeries. Laura donated a kidney to Elena. Context.
Laura and Elena stand in front of a Spiderman birthday display. Filler image

Elena’s Cancer Journey, from Her Perspective

Elena’s journey has had many twists and turns. While trying to start a family, she learned she had a condition that caused the organs on the left side of her body to be underdeveloped. Her left kidney had never worked.

Then, she learned she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and she turned to Roswell Park. Her doctors immediately took action to combat the blood cancer. As part of her treatment, Elena received a stem cell transplant in October 2016. She was put on an anti-rejection medication so the transplant would take. It did, and the treatments proved effective for the cancer. Elena entered remission.

But her pre-existing condition, the cancer journey and her attempts to get pregnant took a toll on Elena’s body.

In 2017, Elena was diagnosed with stage 3 kidney disease, which progressed over several years into end-stage kidney disease. She started dialysis in March 2022 and held her breath in the hopes of finding a donor. But Elena was determined to find one. She put up flyers and went on every major news station that would have her to ask if anyone would be willing to donate. When she posted the story on Facebook, everyone in her community reshared the message.

When Elena finally did connect with a potential donor, the opportunity quickly fell through. So, by the time Elena learned she had another donor, she was skeptical.

“When they called me for the second time, I was afraid to be too excited. I didn’t tell anyone for a really long time,” Elena said.

When she met Laura after the surgery, however, her feelings had transformed. “When Laura walked in, I cried. I just felt like this complete stranger, who lived in the same town as me, helped me. It was like I met my angel.”

A Full-Circle Moment for Laura

For many, going through a major operation may warrant a little time off. For Laura, on the other hand, it was grounds to sign up for something big and challenging. Out of everything Laura is looking forward to this July during Empire State Ride, she hopes seeing Elena at the finish line will be a full-circle moment for both of them. She also hopes to inspire others to consider organ donation.

“I’m just hoping that people are able to see that you can go back to normal life after donating a kidney, and it’s a great gift to be able to give someone,” Laura said.

On Fundraising and the Road Ahead

Now, training and fundraising are in full effect for Laura. Though she originally worried about hitting the $3,500 fundraising minimum, it proved to be easier than anticipated. She’s already exceeded her original goal. She thanks her family, friends and the owner of a local small business for supporting her on her mission to make a difference.

Come July, she’ll be dedicating her ride to countless loved ones who’ve been affected by cancer, and she’ll wear their names on a custom jersey.

As for the Empire State Ride community right now? Laura says they’re already making her feel welcome.

“I’ve joined the Facebook group, so I can already gather the sense of community that this event brings. I’m really excited to get to meet some of the people that I’ve been interacting with on that site!”

Will you join Laura in her mission to give back?

Join Laura at #ESR23

Allison Joseph’s passion for cycling and the cancer cause

Allison Joseph of Troy, New York is a lifelong lover of cycling. Over the years, while on her rides, she noticed something was missing.

“I didn’t see any women who looked like me. I thought about it, and I said, ‘There is no way I am the only woman of color who is interested in cycling.’ So, I set out to find my people,” said Allison.

She started the Capitol Region chapter of Black Girls Do Bike, an organization with 100 chapters worldwide.

Monica Garrison, the founder and executive director of Black Girls Do Bike, explained each chapter has naturally been drawn to different health causes.

“I think we all know that getting on the bike and cycling regularly can help stave off diseases and conditions that affect our community and people of color disproportionately,” Monica said. “It’s almost a no-brainer to want to do something to get in the fight and help these causes.”

That message resonates with Allison.

“Black Girls Do Bike is a community of women who encourage women, especially African American women and women of color, to cycle,” said Allison. “Whether it be for fun, function or fitness, we just want you to get on a bike and enjoy riding.”

Becoming an ESR Road Warrior

Allison at #ESR22

Allison has participated in other endurance cycling events and says she’s always looking for a challenge. When she found Empire State Ride, it was a perfect way to align two of her passions: cycling and the cancer cause.

“So many of my family members have been hit with cancer. I’ve watched them go through the struggle,” Allison explained. “This was my way of doing something.”

With an understanding of Roswell Park’s impact on the world of cancer research and treatment, Allison knows every dollar she raises is serving a greater mission.

“If it doesn’t help someone today, it’s definitely going to help someone tomorrow and in generations to come. It keeps the research going. Technology is constantly changing, and we need money to fund that research.”

It’s also been proven that for every dollar donated, Roswell Park can leverage an additional $13*** in new grant funding. For Allison, that’s even more reason to come back for #ESR23.

“It makes me more motivated to not only do this again but push myself and push my limits even harder to raise even more money.”

*** For years, we’ve told you that your $1 donation can turn into $13 in external funding for cancer research. Now, we’re proud to announce that your $1 donation is now creating $23 in funding. This is thanks to your incredible support and the hard work Roswell Park researchers put in every day to advance new discoveries. Read more about this change

The ESR Community

No rider at ESR is alone. Allison experienced that firsthand during #ESR22. Last year, she joined the ride about halfway through in Albany. For 2023, she will be taking part in the entire seven-day adventure.

“There is a support system that is equal to none that I see,” said Allison. “The volunteers anticipate all your needs. For example, one day, I didn’t even notice that there were some screws loose on my bike, and I turned around and a volunteer was there to fix it.”

Allison also cherishes building relationships with riders from different walks of life.

“Everyone is so friendly and helpful – the energy! I got to meet some incredible people and talk to them about their why and share my why. There are some people who are retired. There are some professionals. There are some young people, so it’s pretty incredible being exposed to all of that diversity.”

Allison at #ESR22
Allison with Terry and Maria

Getting Ready for #ESR23

Allison in Niagara Falls at the finish line

For people who might be nervous about joining the movement this year, Allison says, “Just do it!”

She encouraged utilizing Coach Charlie Livermore’s training plans customized to the ESR experience. Going into #ESR23, Allison says she plans to train longer and harder, with “attacking the hills” at the top of her agenda.

Allison hopes her involvement not only makes a difference in the mission to end cancer, but also sends a message to other women of color.

“Representation matters. For Black Girls Do Bike to be out here representing, it means a lot. It reminds people that we are out here, and black girls do indeed bike and black girls do indeed do a lot of the things that it’s typically believed we do not do.”

As she prepares to challenge herself again this summer, she’s keeping the cause close to her heart.

Roswell Park has done so much for the community. It has done so much for cancer research, and this is my way of giving back.”

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