Pelotonia Meaningful on Many Levels for Clinician Rider

Donald MackOne evening just before Christmas in 1999, Donald Mack, MD, then a family-practice doctor in the small town of Spencerville, Ohio, discovered a lump on his testicle. It was still there next morning, so he had it examined. “I was fortunate; I found the tumor early, while it was still confined to the gland,” Mack says.

His treatment involved surgery and radiation therapy. “I’d go for what I called my ‘tanning treatment,’” he says. “It sometimes left me a little tired, but it wasn’t nearly what most people with cancer experience.”

In 2010, Mack relocated his practice in Spencerville and came to work for The Ohio State University. When he interviewed for the position that April, he learned about Pelotonia. “I immediately wanted to do it,” he says.

Though it had been awhile since he’d been on a bike, he enjoyed bicycling. Before starting medical school he’d ridden across the United States with a group of cyclists. Yes, he was now 50 years old, but he wanted to tackle the August ride in recognition of the 10th anniversary of his cancer diagnosis. That it was an Ohio State and James Cancer Hospital event gave it added meaning.

He’d left the month of June free, prior to starting his new job at Ohio State in July, and now he could use it for training. “I became very familiar with the Olentangy bike trail,” he says. Once he started work, he rode evenings and weekends.

When Pelotonia weekend arrived, he completed the two-day, 180-mile route, the longest of the rides.

Mack has had many encounters with cancer. As a teenager, his maternal grandmother developed breast cancer. Later, as a physician, he provided end-of life care for his paternal grandmother, who died of a brain tumor. He knows first-hand the anxiety experienced by cancer survivors who come to him for care. “With every test you wonder: What if they find something? What will it mean? What will I do?”

Mack rode Pelotonia again in 2011. A family friend had been diagnosed and treated for breast cancer, and on the day of the ride, a woman close to his family was in The James undergoing treatment for acute myeloid leukemia; her brother had been treated there earlier for pharyngeal cancer.

As Mack prepared that morning to ride, the woman’s son and husband were there to see him off. “For them to come was really touching,” he says. As he rode, he had all these people—friends, family and patients—in mind.

“I’m a slower rider but pretty determined,” Mack says. He wore the Pelotonia shirt that identified him as a survivor, and some riders slowed to talk along the way.

“Other survivors had a much more difficult experience than I did,” he says. “One was a young man in his mid-20s, my son’s age, who was treated for a childhood cancer and still had memories of it. Another had a fairly advanced renal cancer, and he’d had all sorts of treatments, but boy could he pedal. He left me in his dust as he rode off down the way.”

As he rides, Mack says, “I’m working to prove to myself that I can overcome the physical challenge.” That was especially true in 2011. During a training ride in May, his bike slipped out from under him on wet pavement, leaving him with a cracked helmet, a concussion and a fractured pelvis. He healed well, and his orthopedist said he could ride Pelotonia, “but I’d have to work for it,” he says.

He again completed the 180-mile course.

“I think Pelotonia is a significant event for the riders, most of whom are riding for someone with cancer, and that is multiplied by the good will that comes from raising money to fight cancer and support cancer research at Ohio State’s cancer center and The James Cancer Hospital,” he says.

Cancer research is vital, he adds. “In 25 years, I’ve seen so many changes in how we treat cancer. We are making strides every day.”

In addition, he says, “Pelotonia raises awareness and draws support for families that are battling cancer or have lost a loved one or for someone recently diagnosed.

“I still remember going back to practice in my small hometown in the ’80s; they still had polio dinners. Polio was gone, but there were still many polio survivors, and the community still raised money for those kinds of charities. Those events drew communities together, they drew people to think about these demons that are out there, and anything that does that is good.” 

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