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ESR Rider Spotlight: Phil Zodda

Meet Phil Zodda, Athlete and dragon slayer

Phil is no stranger to competition — whether he’s competing or coaching. He’s a six-time runner of the New York City Marathon and soon-to-be five-time road warrior for the Empire State Ride. If you’ve ever been on the road for ESR, you might have seen Phil with a whistle in hand, dishing out Swedish Fish as he cheers on other riders from his bike. He slays dragons and rides for everyone else who does the same.

Dragons? you might ask. They’re Phil’s go-to metaphor for all of life’s challenges: setbacks, obstacles, hills and (especially) cancer. He rides in solidarity with everyone who wants to slay cancer for good. While he’s doing so, he’ll likely be the one helping you overcome your own dragons and conquer Empire State Ride.

“You’ll always come across someone who could use a little verbal support, a little slap in the back of the saddle, just to help them along. I enjoy picking up someone who might be solo, and they’re still out there slugging along. I just come up alongside them and stay there and pace them and talk with them,” Phil says.

The Origins of Dragon Slaying

Phil Zodda proudly holds his bike over his head at the finish line of Empire State Ride in Niagara Falls.The idea of dragon slaying came to Phil during his first year riding in Empire State Ride. Phil had just reached Albany and found himself faced with a hill that seemed to stretch for miles. At the end of the hill was the next camp. To get there, however, he had to climb for what felt like forever. His legs were wiped halfway up, but he kept pushing and pushing.

“My ego was such that I wasn’t walking a damn inch. No one was going to put me on the truck and carry me through. There were four of us, and I think two stopped at the rest stop in Albany and took the bus back to the camp. My friend and I rode onward.”

When the pair reached the top of the hill, people rang bells, cheered, gave hugs and shouted words of encouragement. A fellow Empire State Ride road warrior named Carlos greeted Phil and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a dragon slayer.’ Carlos handed Phil a patch with a dragon on it, and from that moment on, the metaphor became Phil’s mantra. 

That winter, Phil thought about his Empire State Ride experience and the feeling of accomplishment he felt from tackling a physical challenge while raising money for cancer research. It had been the first time he’d ever done anything like it, and he resolved to return the following year to conquer Empire State Ride again while inspiring others to slay their own dragons.

“I’m no one special. I am not an elite athlete. I’m just another average guy who’s out there on the course. I’m not a young fellow either,” Phil says. “If I can do it and pedal, so can you. And if there’s a reason why you’re trying it, then let’s finish what you started.”

phil's Background

Phil coached high school track for 34 years before he retired. He’s also been involved with the New York City Marathon for close to 41 years, building the finish line, working as a four-mile captain and, most recently, escorting the elite runners on his bike. A retired teacher, Phil brings his passion for guiding others to everything he does, and Empire State Ride is no exception.

Cycling is not Phil’s first sport, but he made the transition from running following orthoscopic surgery on his knee. It wasn’t really until a friend handed him an Empire State Ride business card that Phil started riding regularly, though. He had tossed the ESR card into a drawer and forgotten about it for months. When he rediscovered it, the timing felt serendipitous. At the time, his wife was overseas for their niece’s funeral. Their niece, only in her thirties, had passed away from breast cancer. Participating in Empire State Ride was the perfect way for Phil to challenge himself physically while honoring those lost to cancer like his niece.

Five years later, Phil keeps coming back to ride again.

“Together, we will slay this dragon called cancer and make the world a better place for future generations.”

Join Phil and his team of dragon slayers by registering for Empire State Ride today. Don’t wait — the last day to register is June 29.

Join Phil at this year’s Empire State Ride. 

Packing pro tips (from riders who’ve been there)

Tackling a seven-day, 500+ mile cycling adventure takes preparation. One of the best steps you can take to prepare for the Empire State Ride is to pack appropriately. From there, check out the tips below from our veteran riders for inspiration on some of the more unique items you might need.

🚲 Terry Bourgeois

ESR founder Terry Bourgeois suggests packing:

  1. Flashlight for navigating camp
  2. Vitamins, focusing on magnesium and potassium supplements for recovery
  3. BioFreeze or a topical pain-relieving product
  4. Earplugs to use in the tent
  5. Desitin for skin irritation

🚲 Maria Thor

Six-year rider Maria Thor is always prepared with:

  1. Performance bars
  2. Packs of nuts
  3. Pedialyte for hydration
  4. Toilet paper with a plastic bag for use in between rest stops
  5. Tube, co2 cartridge and bike tool

🚲 Joyce Ohm

Four-year veteran rider Joyce Ohm can’t leave home without:

  1. Gallon Ziplock plastic bags – she packs her kits (jersey, bibs, sports bra, socks) in plastic bags for each day, with clothes for the evening, as well. Dirty clothes go back in the plastic bags. If it rains, suitcases can get wet, and the bags protect her clothing from rain.
  2. Lightweight, fitted sheet to cover the air mattress
  3. Battery-operated fan for the tent
  4. Recovery shakes and a reusable water bottle
  5. …. and most importantly: A sense of humor!

As part of the $3,500 fundraising commitment, riders are provided with a tent, air mattress, camp chair and towel service each day. Each rider is allowed two medium-size bags, plus a sleeping bag and pillow that we transport each day. The weight of any single bag may not exceed 35 pounds. Pack strategically to have everything you need to enjoy the week! 

                                                                                                                        

ESR rider spotlight: Diana Flores

Diana Flores: Detective. Mother. Cyclist. Survivor. Warrior.

As a detective for the New York Police Department, Diana works for the Intelligence Bureau, detecting and disrupting criminal and terrorist activity using intelligence-led policing. The role marks a deviation from her previous job as an investigator in the field, where she faced dangerous and often life-threatening situations. Being involved in those situations taught her courage, strength and the value of doing what needs to be done — a mindset she’s embraced in all facets of her life.

When Diana learned that she had breast cancer in November 2020, that resilient mindset was tested. As the mother of a four-year-old daughter, hearing the words you have cancer was more terrifying than anything she’d ever encountered on the job.  

“Of course, I was afraid. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘I can’t leave my daughter. I don’t want to die,’” she says. “When you’re living for someone who’s counting on you and looking up to you, the last thing you want to do is leave.”

Diana fought with everything she had to stay with her daughter. Over the course of two years, she underwent treatment, a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Now, she’s grateful to have returned to a career she loves and a newfound purpose: fighting for other cancer patients.

From cancer survivor to cancer warrior

For as long as Diana can remember, being competitive and active have been pillars in her life. Her favorite childhood memories involved racing her brother, Anthony, on bikes to see who could make it to their aunt’s house first. They took different, more difficult routes every time. In adulthood, she sought out ways to stay active, breaking out her bike for fitness and leaning into anything she viewed as a challenge.

“Movement is medicine,” Diana says.

Naturally, when she saw an Empire State Ride commercial on TV at home in the Bronx, she knew her next journey was about to begin.

“When I found out what [ESR] was about and learned that it was for cancer research and to end cancer, I just got a feeling that said, ‘I have to do this ride,’” she says. “I was going through my chemo treatments at the time, and I promised myself that next year, if I was able to ride, nothing was going to stop me from doing it for myself and those who can’t do it.”

Empire State Ride 2022 will be her first-ever multiday tour. She’s completed other day rides, but this challenge is new to her, and nothing will hold her back. She knows she is stronger than any pain or challenge and is fighting for something bigger than herself. Diana rides today for the advancement of cancer cures tomorrow.

On Empire State Ride

Diana’s decision to participate in Empire State Ride comes less than a year after her treatments ended. She’s honoring not only herself, but her sister-in-law who survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, her mother-in-law who is a two-time survivor of cervical cancer and her daughter for whom she has always fought.

“It’s going to be amazing when my daughter grows up. The technology and the medicine are going to get better. It has already gotten better. You go from people dying from breast cancer — and I know they still do — but there are so many more survivors. So, this ride is going to mean a lot.”

Diana has already started to train and dream about reaching the finish line at Niagara Falls. She’s been following Charlie Livermore’s training plan and has no doubt that reaching the falls will be one of the most rewarding moments of her life. It will take courage, strength and a commitment to doing what needs to be done, but the detective in her has years of practice at that already.

She’s thankful for the opportunity to ride and for the support of her family, especially her husband, William and her beautiful daughter. “I am just happy … happy to be strong enough. That I came out of this on top. It was a tough time, but I am happy that I am here to tell my story and that I am healthy.”

Become an Empire State road warrior and join Diana in the fight to end cancer.

Join Diana at this year’s Empire State Ride. 

Rider spotlight: Doug Field

Meet ESR Hometown Challenge Champion, Doug Field. 

Five years ago, Doug Field felt off, like he wasn’t quite himself. He found himself getting dizzy, disoriented and confused about everyday details. He couldn’t remember how to get to a restaurant he frequented in Manhattan or how navigate his way through an airport without the help of his daughter. Something wasn’t right.

Doug’s suspicions were confirmed during a visit to his optometrist. His optic nerve was badly inflamed, and he was quickly referred to an ophthalmologist and a neurologist. Tests later revealed that Doug had metastases on his brain from cancer that spread from his lungs. He had never smoked. Since that time, Doug has worked closely with oncologists and neurologists to remove the metastases around his brain and prevent the cancer from worsening.

Rising above

 

Today, Doug’s mind is clearer and more focused than before. He undergoes immunotherapy and receives infusions every three weeks, but he’s persevering and continuing to push back against his diagnosis. In fact, Doug will soon be graduating with his Master of Business Administration degree and riding in the weeklong Empire State Ride alongside fellow survivors and thrivers. 

“I feel good, and I’m grateful,” Doug says. “Now, my story is that I’m riding to help fund research to fight, have an impact and enable more people to be eligible for treatment across a range of cancers.”

Doug's 500+ Mile Hometown Challenge

In 2020, Doug completed the Empire State Ride 500+ Mile Hometown Challenge and raised approximately $10,000 in the fight to end cancer. He says that participating in events like Empire State Ride Long Island is a great way to raise funds to drive the research that helps people like him navigate their cancer diagnosis.

“I’m a direct result of research efforts,” Doug says, “My oncologist says that when she finished her oncology fellowship, the rubric showed three boxes for patients with lung cancer, meaning you had three choices [for treatment]. Now she says that it’s an entire spreadsheet of different combinations, drugs and therapies.”

Physically, Doug feels better than ever despite his condition. When the idea of cycling first came up in a conversation with a friend, Doug couldn’t imagine riding the distances he currently does. Now, he rides on the weekends with a group of cyclists and can easily cover 50 or more miles on his own. That all started from a simple desire to do something to further cancer research for future generations.

Whether you’re a novice rider or riding is part of your weekly routine, participating in the Empire State Ride Long Island is the perfect way to raise funds and work toward more clinical treatment options.

Don’t miss out — register today!

Volunteer feature: Meet Ken

Meet Ken Flynn

Meet Dax, Ken’s four-legged road warrior

It’s a tall ask for someone to take a full week off work to join the Empire State Ride team on the road, but 46-year-old Ken Flynn doesn’t mind one bit. For him, it’s a family affair. His wife, Amy, tackles ESR as a road warrior, and Ken follows her from stop to stop with their golden retriever, Dax (above). They bring their camper, and Ken helps the ESR team while his wife is riding.

We sat down (virtually!) with Ken to hear his reasons for getting involved.

Q&A

Why do you volunteer for Empire State Ride?

I volunteer to be a supportive partner for my wife on a quest that means so much to her.

How did you get started with Empire State Ride?

My best friend knows Terry Bourgeois and told my wife and me about the ride. My wife and friend, Ben, planned to do the ride together in 2020; Ben’s wife and I planned to volunteer for the week while they were on the road. Ben, unfortunately, had to back out, but my wife was committed. 

She rides for her mother and her aunts who battled various forms of cancer. She lost her one aunt to pancreatic cancer.

What do your accommodations look like for the week?

I pull along our camper for a comfortable bed and air-conditioning at night. I even purchased a new truck to make it easier to tow my RV.

Why did you decide to come back again this year?

My wife and I both said this was going to be a one and done thing. That idea lasted about two days. It has turned into so much more than just volunteering for a week on the road. We have made incredible new friends and heard amazing stories that keep us coming back to help. The riders are truly amazing!

What’s one memory you have from being on the road?

The Regulators (left) are a team that came together last year that generally brings up the rear of the pack, coming in late almost every day. This team stayed at the back and helped so many who were struggling. Because of them, every one of these struggling riders was able to overcome and conquer the road. Seeing this is another reason why I have to come back for more.

What are you most looking forward about this year’s event?

Last year, I met so many great people, many of whom were survivors or currently battling cancer. The stories, emotions, people, food and overall cause is what makes it easy to return as a volunteer again in 2022.

Any last thoughts?

Nothing was going to stop me from volunteering for such an important cause. All I had to do was put in for vacation time.

 

Luckily, you don’t have to put in for vacation time to get involved as a volunteer for Empire State Ride. Volunteers are needed daily on the route, and you can sign up for a shift that fits your life. Learn more and sign up below.

Join Ken at this year’s Empire State Ride. 

You’re shaping the future of cancer by fueling research

Every day, Roswell Park is pushing to eliminate cancer’s grip on humanity. Thanks to generous funds brought in through the Empire State Ride, we’ve seen the genesis of groundbreaking and lifesaving advances right here in Buffalo. Those new treatments and findings all have their start with new questions and ideas from Roswell Park scientists.

That’s where Roswell Park’s Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) comes in. Researchers submit their project proposals, all looking to continue to learn more about cancer. Through a competitive and rigorous process, these investigators and their work have been funded. These grants are made possible by the generosity of ESR road warriors and their donors, without whom, these projects could not get off the ground and make their marks on cancer as we know it.

Gurova, Katerina

Study of the role of immune system in anti-cancer activity of novel chemicals causing unpacking of DNA in tumor cells

Led by Katerina Gurova, MD, PhD, Department of Cell Stress Biology

This investigation expands on existing work of Dr. Gurova’s currently in clinical trial. She and her team developed a group of chemicals called curaxins which kill tumor cells without harming DNA; something many anti-cancer drugs unfortunately do. Curaxins are able to preserve DNA and healthy cells, because they disrupt the binding of DNA into chromatin instead of the DNA itself. Since tumor cells are more susceptible to that damage, they are the cells that are destroyed.

These curaxins, in addition to actively killing cancer cells, are believed to also have the power to boost an immune response that will cause immune cells to attack tumor cells. This would unlock the maximal anti-tumor efficacy of curaxins, cutting off both mechanisms through which cancer evades the immune system.

Dr. Gurova and her team intend to study type 1 interferon responses as a potential biomarker of curaxin’s efficacy in activating an anti-tumor immune response. This success of this research will help scientists give cancer patients their best chance.

Hahn, Theresa

Study of a new blood test that may predict fatal cancer relapse after allogeneic blood or marrow transplantation

Led by Theresa Hahn, PhD, Department of Cancer Prevention and Control

Allogeneic blood or marrow transplantation (AlloBMT) has been used for over 60 years to cure blood cancers. The process involves collecting cells from a healthy donor and infusing them into a patient with blood cancer so those new cells can recognize the cancer cells and destroy them. Sometimes, that process doesn’t work and the cancer relapses.

Dr. Hahn will study one gene that may be responsible for allowing those donor cells to attack cancer cells. That gene produces an enzyme that has a marker, which can be measured in someone’s blood. When there’s a high level of that marker, it acts as one “brake” on the immune system. When there’s a low level, this “brake” does not seem to be activated.

Dr. Hahn and her team believe cells with this “brake” are better at killing cancer cells. They will investigate a new blood test to determine if there is an association between the amount of those markers and fatal cancer relapse.

This project will potentially directly impact the choice of donor for AlloBMT and will hopefully provide a new pathway to study how cancer cells can escape the immune system. If this study is successful, it has the potential to predict fatal cancer relapse and improve survival after this kind of transplantation.

The following investigations were funded in November 2021:

McGray, Bob A “Tag Team” approach to T-cell therapy in ovarian cancer. Engineering long-lived T-cells that attack tumors AND instruct the T-cells already in the tumor to fight cancer.

Led by AJ Robert McGray, PhD, Departments of Translational Immuno-Oncology and Immunology

Immunotherapies have been helpful to so many cancer patients, but ovarian cancer patients have only seen modest success through immunotherapy treatment options. Dr. McGray and his team seek to meet this need for more effective options to treat ovarian cancer. One reason existing treatments might not be as effective as could be hoped is that many of the T-cells that infiltrate ovarian cancer cannot effectively target the cancer cells.

This team of researchers aims to engineer T-cells that would release bi-specific T-cell engagers (BiTEs), which would specifically target folate receptor alpha, found in ovarian cancer. The proposed study would address fundamental gaps in knowledge and potentially improve clinical outcomes for ovarian cancer patients.

This approach has the potential to be combined with and improve upon current treatments that are being evaluated in ovarian cancer, as well as other cancer types that do not routinely benefit from immunotherapy.

Tang, DeanHow does a non-protein encoding long RNA called MEG3 function as a prostate tumor suppressor?

Led by Dean Tang, PhD, Department of Pharmacology & Therapeutics

More than 70% of human tumors have a low rate of maternally expressed gene 3 (MEG3), a gene which functions as a tumor suppressor in many cancers. Still, little is known about MEG3.

Dr. Tang and his team will study MEG3, particularly in prostate cancer. It is believed that MEG3 does its work by maintaining genome and chromosome integrity through regulating checkpoints and DNA damage repair.

They intend to learn more about the underlying tumor-suppressive abilities of MEG3 and discover how and why it is lost in prostate cancer. The ultimate goal is to fill a critical knowledge gap in the functions, mechanisms and regulation of MEG3 in prostate cancer, which will potentially shed light on the tumor suppressive powers in other cancers, as well.

Wang, HaiTarget the nutritional interplay between cancer cells and bone cells to limit prostate cancer bone metastases

Led by Hai Wang, PhD, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology

Most cancer patients die not because of complications from their original tumor but because of the problems that arise when the tumor has metastasized to other sites. Bone is the predominant site for metastases of prostate cancer, causing skeletal complications and marked decreases in quality of life and survival rates.

Dr. Wang and his team hypothesize that prostate cancer cells that spread to bone change the way nutrients are converted into energy there. They will investigate exchanges of nutrients between cancer cells and bone-forming cells called osteoblasts, to better understand the metabolic processes and molecular signaling when prostate cancer metastasizes to the bones.

Through this work, these researchers hope to impede the progression of the metastatic disease process and expedite future clinical trials. This could potentially lead to the development of new treatments to alleviate skeletal complications for these patients and improve survival rates.

proceeds directly benefit