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Full circle moments: Why first-time ESR rider Fred McKenna rides to end cancer

Fred's Why for Riding

There are moments in life when you look back and realize how all your life experiences connect — whether it’s destiny, divinity or mere coincidence. First-time Empire State Rider Fred McKenna reflects on this idea as he sits down at his computer in his home office in Oakdale, NY. Donning black-rimmed glasses and a blue-and-white polo, he shares his why for participating in Empire State Ride and fundraising for cancer research — something Fred says is akin to common sense.

“It’s just the right thing to do if you have the means and the opportunity, and you can do it,” Fred says. “If you can’t do what I do and ride and raise that much because physically or financially you can’t, then contribute in some way.”

For Fred, 74, a prostate cancer survivor, former science teacher and retired entrepreneur, riding in Empire State Ride means more than just the adventure. He remembers the days when he’d coach his daughter Aileen’s soccer team, doing his best to instill in her important life skills.

“My dad was my coach from a very young age all the way through until I was ready to go off to college,” says Aileen. “He was a great coach. He loved the game and loved seeing us succeed — but he also felt very strongly that playing soccer wasn’t just about playing soccer. It was about learning, about commitment and teamwork and the value of hard work.

In recent years, Fred and Aileen discovered that the son of a fellow soccer coach went on to become a leading researcher in the field of CAR T-Cell Therapy. Up until a few years ago, this fact may not have given them pause. Today, however, it connects to their lives in a significant way.

A Christmas picture of the McKenna family was just after Aileen got the CAR T treatment

“It's just the right thing to do if you have the means and the opportunity, and you can do it. If you can't do what I do and ride and raise that much because physically or financially you can't, then contribute in some way.”

Photo of Aileen getting her head shaved
Photo of Aileen getting her head shaved

Navigating His Daughter’s Cancer Diagnosis

In October 2021, Aileen, 38 at the time, started to cough and feel under the weather. The cough lingered for more than a month, and she became extremely out of breath and fatigued. At Thanksgiving, family members encouraged her to see a doctor. She soon visited a walk-in clinic where she received a chest X-ray. That scan revealed the first sign of serious trouble (and every parent’s worst nightmare): a mass in the center of Aileen’s chest.

Aileen’s physicians moved quickly, referring her first for a CT scan. Over the next month, she bounced between a local medical facility and her primary care physician, working with a thoracic surgeon, cardiologist and oncologist to determine her diagnosis.

On January 6, 2022, after a month of tests and uncertainty, the diagnosis finally came back: Aileen had lymphoma, later determined to be diffuse large b-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The cancer was aggressive but actionable, and Aileen, with the support of her dad and mom, immediately took the first step.

The next day, Aileen started her first of six chemotherapy treatments spanning four months. She received each dose within a five-day span, then three weeks of recovery in between treatments. At the end of chemotherapy, the tumor in her chest shrunk but didn’t go away.

Navigating CAR T-Cell Therapy

The next step in Aileen’s treatment involved CAR T-Cell Therapy, one of the first FDA-approved cellular therapies to incorporate adoptive cell transfer. This innovative treatment option was pioneered by Renier Brentjens, MD, PhD, Deputy Director at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, and only recently moved up as a second-line treatment option by Aileen’s insurance. Months earlier, she may have needed more chemotherapy.

On November 14, Aileen went back to a New York City based hospital to begin her therapy — starting with having T-cells removed from her blood and sent to a laboratory. There, a gene was inserted to help them hunt down cancer cells and launch an attack. The stronger cells were multiplied and returned to Aileen through an infusion. This allowed Aileen’s own immune system to fight the cancer cells. There were side effects, of course, but Aileen said their duration was much shorter than what she experienced during chemotherapy.

Fifteen days later, Aileen was released from the hospital. On January 6, 2023, one year to the date of her diagnosis, she was officially declared no evidence of disease.

Reflecting on this moment, Aileen thinks back to her soccer days. “I learned a lot of lessons in soccer that I think really paid off when it came time to surviving cancer and going through treatment — a lot about persistence. I learned that you can do hard things and that you can be in a lot of pain and keep going. All those things were weirdly valuable lessons that came out of soccer that had nothing to do with winning games or being a champion athlete. Flash forward, all these experiences kind of connected.”

Aileen with shaved head during treatment

"I learned that you can do hard things and that you can be in a lot of pain and keep going. "

Life After Cancer

A cancer diagnosis often affects more than just the patient. “Cancer didn’t only happen to me,” Aileen says. “It happened to everyone around me. Everybody reacts to that kind of fear and frustration and helplessness very differently. Both of my parents provided an immense amount of care.”

For Fred, the fear and uncertainty of watching his daughter go through treatment led to action. Cycling, a long-time passion of his, seemed like a logical way to make a difference on the future of cancer care.

“There’s never going to be a time when my daughter doesn’t think about cancer. It’s just in no way possible. How could you go through what she went through and not be concerned every time you get a call or you’re sick or you’re coughing too much? In the back of your head, you’re thinking, what do I have?”

Fred's bike club

Why Fundraising for Empire State Ride Matters

As Fred prepares to ride his bike across New York State, his cancer connection and drive to move the research forward is deepened by the knowledge that funds from Empire State Ride benefit Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, a national leader in cell therapy research. While researching the event, Fred also learned that Roswell Park developed an innovative brain cancer vaccine, SurVaxM, that is making strides in treating glioblastoma patients. Fred’s nephew passed away from brain cancer a few years ago. He was only 22.

“I think that the stuff around glioblastomas is so groundbreaking and tremendous,” Fred says. “It is a death sentence, and here they are, beginning to have some impact on it.”

Advances in critical areas where little is known about less common, aggressive and complex cancers depend on research — and research is funded through donor dollars like those raised through Empire State Ride.

Looking Ahead to the 500+ Mile Adventure

Thinking back on his daughter’s cancer journey, the loss of his nephew and his own battles with prostate cancer that was treated and cured with bracytherapy, Fred has confidence that his fundraising efforts through Empire State Ride will bring more effective, less invasive ways to treat all types of cancers — and hope to patients everywhere, including Aileen.

“Cancer comes in many forms and shows up in many, many different ways. I don’t know if we’re ever going to totally cure it, but maybe we could develop treatments, even for chronic types of cancers, where we can keep people alive, allowing them to live normal lives,” Fred says.

Until that day, Fred plans to keep going and keep riding, enjoying every moment with Aileen along the way.

 

 

Picture of Fred with his wife and daughter Aileen.

"I don’t know if we’re ever going to totally cure it, but maybe we could develop treatments, even for chronic types of cancers, where we can keep people alive, allowing them to live normal lives."

To date, Fred has raised more than $16,000 for the cause. Join Fred on the road today.

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