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Maria Coccia-Bourgeois’ seven mountains: from ESR to surviving cancer

Maria Coccia-Bourgeois at IceCycle
Maria being interviewed about ESR

It only takes one meeting with Maria Coccia-Bourgeois before she forms some sort of connection with you. She’ll likely know your name, greet you with a contagious smile, ask how you’re doing and genuinely care to hear your response. Maria’s gift and love for people is undeniable. Her outlook on life, especially as a cancer survivor, is equally as admirable. 

Perhaps the best way to describe Maria comes from a story she shared about her first Empire State Ride in 2017. On the third day of the seven-day adventure, Maria found herself off track.

“They wanted to flag me in. And I’m like, ‘No, I really don’t want to. I really, really, really want to do this ride.’ I wanted to pedal every mile that day, and I did,” said Maria. “I was the last one in, and there was Terry [the founder of Empire State Ride] at the top of the hill. I came in on my bike and Terry was standing there with his hands in his pocket just waiting for me. Everybody was cheering. He gave me the biggest bear hug, because the last person made it home.”

Maria could’ve been picked up that day; she could’ve decided to take the last miles of the day as a loss. But that’s not what she did.

“You don’t give up. You don’t give up,” she echoed. That memory from the road also serves as a metaphor for the way Maria has approached each obstacle in her life: the death of both her parents, a lifelong struggle with dyslexia and her own hard-fought battle with cancer.

How Maria Learned about ESR

Physical fitness has always been important to Maria. Indoor cycling was the first exercise she really loved before discovering the world of outdoor cycling.

“I used to spin six days a week at the gym. Get up, spin. I was blessed to have the time to do this. I truly believe we have one temple. We’ve got to take care of our temple: mind, body and spirit.”

Then, one day a friend asked Maria to join her on the 65-mile route at Ride for Roswell, one of the nation’s largest cycling fundraising events based in Buffalo, New York.

“I can still remember back then. I did it with some friends from the gym, and I’d never cycled outside, never. I just did it that year. After I did that first 65, I was exhilarated. I could have kept going. I’m like, ‘I want to go more. Let’s do this again!’”

And she did. The next year, she signed up for the 100-mile route. When she later learned about Empire State Ride from a friend and met ESR founder Terry Bourgeois at a different 100-mile cycling event, Maria sprang into action.

“And I flipped my life in two weeks to do the Empire State Ride.”

So began a new chapter for Maria.

Maria on the road at ESR in 2021
Maria riding at ESR

Becoming an Empire State Ride Road Warrior

The mission behind Empire State Ride is what had Maria hooked from the very beginning. She lost both her parents to cancer.

“My parents were A & G, Angelo and Gloria. They were an amazing couple, amazing parents. The love that they had … you can’t measure it.”

She was also drawn to the idea of a community of riders that become, in some ways, like family. And remember Maria’s natural gift with people? That absolutely shines through as a road warrior.

“I think there’s a magnetic component of her personality; she has become part of what makes the Empire State Ride a great experience,” said Terry. “With her fundraising, she sends out literally 300+ personal letters to 300 people. And every single donation she gets, she doesn’t send a text, she doesn’t send an email to thank them. She picks up the phone, and she calls them. She does that same thing with her fellow riders. She goes out of her way to make sure that people feel welcomed and loved.”

Maria has become not only a cheerleader for other riders, but some would even think of her as a mother figure on the road.

Maria’s Cancer Diagnosis

Maria prides herself on taking care of her body and being mindful of any warning signs that something could be off. During the 2021 ESR, she noticed she didn’t feel quite herself. Her stamina wasn’t what it used to be, and she started having trouble going to the bathroom.

She reached out to her doctor right away and sought to get to the root of the problem. After a sonogram and a CT scan, Maria received a phone call that no one ever anticipates. 

“I was on my bicycle spinning, riding my bike like I always did. And I got a call and she [the doctor] just said, ‘There’s a fatty mass and we need to get you at Roswell Park right away.’ I just lost it. I called Terry, and I told Terry what was going on. Boom, my life changed. I remember walking in the door at Roswell Park that Friday. I blessed myself and I said, ‘Jesus, you have the wheel.’ I threw my hands up and started my journey.”

A Cancer Battle of Seven Mountains

Maria was diagnosed with Leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that grows
in the smooth muscles. The treatment plan in front of her was aggressive and uncertain.

“I had 430 hours of chemo, a ten-hour surgery. I had a cantaloupe-sized
tumor, my left kidney and part of my large intestine removed.”

This was 2021, still in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maria
could only have two people by her side throughout the duration of her
treatment.

By this time, Terry had become an incredibly close friend. He
would be one of those two people. Her niece Rebecca stepped up to be the second person as soon as she heard the news.

“Aunt Maria has such a huge family. And it’s not even just the Coccia kids that are her family,” said Rebecca. “It’s the Roswell family. It’s
the Empire State Ride family. It’s all of those people who have truly impacted her … I know for a fact that so many other people wished and wanted to be there. It’s not blood that makes family. If anybody is a true testament to that, it’s my Aunt Maria.”

Maria broke down her cancer treatment into what she called, “Seven Mountains.” Each mountain represented a different milestone in her journey: five rounds of initial chemo, a ten-hour surgery and one last round of chemo.

“I rang the Victory Bell in May and in  June I was on my bicycle. I wanted to be on the Empire State Ride. I accomplished all those goals – and the Seven Mountains,” said Maria. “We are so blessed, and yes, it changed me. This whole journey changed me.”

Maria Bell Ringing
Maria at Empire State Ride after cancer treatment.
Terry and Maria with friends at the 2022 finish line
Terry, Maria and friends at the finish line at ESR.

The Urgency Behind Empire State Ride

Today, Maria believes she is lucky to be alive. First and foremost, she thanks God, and then she thanks the medical team at Roswell Park. Every four months she goes for body scans and monitoring. The fear of her cancer coming back always lingers.

“Honestly, for a week before the scan, I’m a hot mess. A lot of praying. The night before you break down because you don’t know what they’re going to say. And then when, praise God, they say that it’s clear, then I’m just doing a happy dance.”

But, despite the amazing progress made in recent years thanks to events like ESR, Maria’s treatment was not one of the new, breakthrough advancements. Instead, it was incredibly invasive and toxic for Maria’s body.

“It’s hard to talk about reality sometimes,” said Terry. “But Maria’s reality is that because she had 430 hours of chemo, she’s reached her maximum allowable dosage of those drugs. If that cancer comes back again, what would be the next step? Once again, we don’t know for sure. But, if there is a light, it’s the light of what’s currently being worked on at Roswell Park with cellular therapy. There are known targets that the team has identified for sarcoma, and in my mind, that adds a huge sense of urgency to what we’re doing.”

With her parents still at the forefront of why she rides, knowing she’s pedaling for a breakthrough that could help her if her cancer were to return, fuels a new motivation for Maria.

Terry added, “We’ve got work to do. And the beautiful thing is, we have a path to go down.”

More Life to Live After Cancer

The end of Maria’s cancer treatment marked the beginning of a new adventure. While cancer has left her forever changed, her appreciation for life has only grown. Still, she’s made it back to ESR each year. Even when an injury prevented her from riding her own bike, she and Terry took on the statewide trek together on a tandem bike.

She’s also found love. Her friendship with Terry evolved into a wonderful relationship, and at the finish line in Niagara Falls at ESR 2022, Terry asked Maria to marry him. Their story, which in some ways bloomed out of adversity, is a reminder that getting to the top of the mountain is always something worth fighting for.

That’s true for Maria’s personal battle with sarcoma, and it’s true for the greater cause that brings us all together: ending cancer.