The first time Grace Deetjen learned about the Illini 4000 team that cycles across the United States each summer to raise money for cancer research, she didn’t think much of it.
Then she learned her mother was diagnosed with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma.
And her best friend’s dad was diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer.
The idea planted then clinched the University of Illinois sophomore’s decision. She wanted to ride.
“Now I had a purpose for doing it,” the Naperville North High School 2012 graduate said. “It really made me think about things and how people are affected by cancer.”
Twenty students will ride from New York to San Francisco, 4,500 miles total, 70 miles a day for 10 weeks with one rest day during each of those weeks. And each cyclist is required to raise at least $3,500 to take part in the ride.
Since the first ride in 2007, the group has donated more than $500,000 to cancer research and patient support services. Each year the students strive to raise $150,000.
At first Deetjen’s mother, who is in remission, was hesitant for her daughter to do the ride. She wasn’t concerned her daughter had never been on a road bike before. Instead she wasn’t sure she wanted her to raise money for the kinds of treatments she endured. The side effects of chemotherapy were often just as challenging as the cancer.
Deetjen, who is majoring in bioengineering, said her research into new therapies is what changed her mother’s mind.
“There are young researchers doing really unique things like cancer prevention research, which my mom is into,” Deetjen said. “She believes it’s really important to stop it early.”
Deetjen won’t be alone representing Naperville on the ride. Jeff Bogue, a freshman at Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Neuqua Valley High School, will join her on the team.
However, his reasons for doing it are much different than for Deetjen.
“I have been interested in cycling for three or four years as a hobby in general,” Bogue said. “I just enjoy doing it.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had a goal: to ride across the United States. His sister, who already was attending school at Illinois, told him about the Illini 4000.
“I’ve never done something so physically demanding,” Bogue said.
But he is looking forward to that challenge and of meeting new people and learning about their challenges going through cancer treatment. Cancer hasn’t affected his life as intimately as Deetjen, but he’s known enough people struggling with it that he wants to help.
Deetjen and Bogue didn’t just sign up one day and get immediately accepted to the ride. They had to apply to be part of the team of 20.
Because the team is together for more than two months, they are partly selected on their ability to be team members. While the physical part is important, it’s not the only aspect to taking part in the ride.
“It means so much more than to ride a bike,” said Illini 4000 president Tory Cross.
The junior neuroscience major from a small town downstate got involved because her mother had lost her mother to cancer as a young child.
“I can’t remember how cancer was introduced to me,” Cross said. “Cancer has always been there.”
Cross sees how her grandmother’s death still is affecting her mother at age 45.
The ride will be one way she can help make a difference, but becoming a physician’s assistant helping people through their cancer treatment is her long-term goal.
“I understand what people need emotionally in their medical treatment,” Cross said. “It’s more than fighting a disease.
For Deetjen, she has exceeded the minimum to raise, almost half that was raised through selling cookies for a dollar each, and she is excited to see how people have opened their hearts to help her make the ride happen.
“My hope for the team is to get the word out more and get more support,” she said.