~ Bay Weekly Interview ~
with Suzanna Brugler
Cyclist-Survivor Christopher Millard
Finding His Pace on the Tour of Hope
Rare are the times you find yourself in the center of something so humanly positive and inherently powerful that you know it is worth all you can give. For Annapolitan Christopher Millard, that time is now, as he rides alongside seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong as a member of the 2005 Bristol-Myers Squibb Tour of Hope cycling team.
Millard is one of 24 riders cancer survivors, advocates, caregivers, physicians and researchers hand-selected from 1,100 hopefuls to cycle cross-country in an adventure covering 3,300 miles of American landscape in nine days, sharing their experiences and inspiration along the way. The Tour of Hope marks its third year of raising funds and awareness for clinical trials and cancer research.
Armstrong led the team at the tours Sept. 29 kick-off in San Diego, and he will meet the cyclists at various points along the route, rejoining the team for the tours final leg and triumphant finale on Oct. 8 at the Ellipse in Washington, D.C.
Millard, a fisheries biologist at Maryland Department of Natural Resources and a survivor of Rhabdomyo-sarcoma, cancer of fibrous muscle tissue, is fervent when speaking on the tour and raising cancer awareness. After discovering a lump in his shoulder the size of a quarter, he waited a year until the lump grew to the size of a softball to see a doctor. He beat his cancer with experimental treatment in a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I caught up with the cyclist-survivor via telephone while he was on a tour stop at Sonora, Texas, 400 or 500 miles into his ride.
Bay Weekly The Bristol-Myers Squibb Tour of Hope is only in its third year. How did you first find out about the tour?
Chris Millard I looked it up on the Internet and was inspired to be part of the local ride that came down from Bethesda and into D.C. last year thats really the fund-raising arm of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Tour of Hope. Then I was inspired to apply to be on this years national team. If you look at the people on the national team over the last couple of years, theyre a pretty impressive group of folks, so I consider it a huge honor to be a part of this years team.
Bay Weekly Youve been a mountain biker for 18 years, but only four years ago, after your surgery, you bought yourself a road bike to get back into shape. Do you think it serendipitous that you shifted your focus to road biking and were selected to be a member of this years Tour of Hope national cycling team?
Chris Millard Road biking was something I had always wanted to do. As I got out of the hospital, as a way to congratulate myself for getting past the treatment and the surgery, I started to focus more on road cycling. When youre a cancer survivor, you look for some sort of greater purpose than what you went through. The Tour of Hope provides that justification. Its the perfect combination of two things Im very passionate about, clinical trials and cancer research, because thats essentially what saved my life.
Bay Weekly After you were diagnosed with cancer at a time when your health insurance coverage wasnt secure, your brother began searching for clinical trials. Your response to his efforts was, I thought clinical trials were for people who were terminally ill. Is this a common misperception among newly diagnosed cancer patients?
Chris Millard Because Im a biologist, I always felt that I was pretty in tune with science and technology. The perception of clinical trials over the last 20 to 30 years is that its a last-ditch effort. Thats the biggest incentive for me doing the tour to try and change some of those attitudes. What were trying to promote here is that cancer is not a death sentence. There are lots of treatments out there that can help.
Clinical trials give you the leading-edge technology, the standard treatment plus a little extra. At least in my case, that treatment was able to get me the chemotherapy that I needed because, typically, my cancer is treated just with radiation and surgery. Because I had kind of a slow start, I really am a true believer that that extra advantage, chemotherapy, is what got me past my disease.
Bay Weekly How do you explain your initial lackadaisical attitude toward the seriousness of your illness?
Chris Millard For somebody who had classes in anatomy and physiology, youd think Id know a little bit better about what a tumor was like. But I was really kind of deceived by the whole thing. As it turns out, Lance Armstrong had done essentially the same thing. He and I are both athletic, no histories of cancer in our families. Its the kind of thing, if youre feeling kind of invincible and feeling that thats not something that could essentially happen to you, its very easy to deny.
Bay Weekly Is there a comparison between your experience with cancer treatment and the Tour of Hope?
Chris Millard The whole ride is basically a metaphor for cancer treatment. Were a part of a larger team; we certainly cant do this by ourselves. So you have a lot of support staff, just like you do when youre going through cancer. Youre part of a larger team that cares for you.
As we left San Diego, it was very tough and something we really had to dig deep. There was about 5,500 to 8,000 feet of climbing and it was 105 degrees out. Its the kind of thing that, as were suffering through that, all of us are thinking of either our own stories with cancer and how we suffered with it, or were thinking about friends and family, because the teams made up of cancer survivors, physicians, researchers, also care givers. So everyone has that connection. It was really in the front of my mind, how much I suffered when I was in Johns Hopkins, how I couldnt wait to get out and get on a bike. Almost anything that they can throw at me out here is easier than going through cancer treatments.
Being a cancer survivor, youre always thinking about how fortunate you are to even be able to be there on the bike.
Bay Weekly How did you train for this ride?
Chris Millard We had about 16 weeks of training with Carmichael Training Systems. Carmichael was the coach for Lance Armstrong. They really did a wonderful job of getting us in shape, but its the kind of thing where you can never really anticipate what its like to ride just about 100 miles a day for nine days straight. As were doing the training, well do maybe 100 miles one day, and then it will drop down to maybe 60 the next day. But here, when were doing it as part of the Tour of Hope, its hard every day.
Bay Weekly Do you think you were prepared, both mentally and physically, for such an endurance event?
Chris Millard Its a challenge for everybody. When youre selected for the Tour of Hope, youre not necessarily selected for your cycling skill; its a combination of a lot of things. The ability to relay your message, what youre positive about, the ability to convey your story about your cancer experience, is a fair amount of importance.
The way Ive always perceived it, the cycling has been kind of secondary because I would consider this whole thing a failure for me if I didnt have the opportunity to tell my story and, hopefully, inspire people to not make some of the mistakes Ive made and, hopefully, educate them about clinical trials and cancer research.
Bay Weekly What does it take to win?
Chris Millard What does it takes to win? For me, its hope. Thats why I think its so fitting that were on the Tour of Hope. When I was in Johns Hopkins being treated, the only thing that really keeps you going is that hope that at some point youll get past your disease. There were so many days when Id just be looking outside the window, hoping to be able to get back on my bike, hoping I could have a good conversation with my colleagues and go to work, just hoping I could have a normal existence.
That, I think, is critical just to maintain that hope. Without that feeling of hope and feeling that youll eventually get past the disease, I dont think you can win. I think you have to have that attitude that the hope is there, and that youll eventually get past it.
Learn more about how Millard is progressing on the 2005 Bristol-Myers Squibb Tour of Hope or about the grand finale event at the Ellipse on Saturday, October 8: www.tourofhope.org.
Suzanna Brugler, public affairs specialist and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, traveled the world with the Navy, living in Japan, Virginia and California before resettling in Annapolis.