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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?

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