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College student bikes across America to honor boyfriend who died from rare cancer

  • katie and boyfriend final.jpg

    Katie Gundlach and her boyfriend Ryan Donaghey. (Katie Gundlach)

  • carrying bike.jpeg

    Katie Gundlach carrying her bike in Washington DC. (Katie Gundlach)

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    Katie Gundlach biking through Virginia. (Katie Gundlach)

When Katie Gundlach’s boyfriend Ryan Donaghey died suddenly from a rare form of nasal cancer at the age of 21, she felt like her world had been flipped upside down.

After experiencing chronic nosebleeds, Donaghey was diagnosed with sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma (SNUC) in the summer of 2011. SNUC, an extremely rare cancer of the sinuses that arises in the nasal cavity, is often diagnosed late and has a poor prognosis.

Despite undergoing two surgeries, two rounds of chemotherapy, and three rounds of radiation treatment, he passed away unexpectedly in March 2013 – just before finishing his final round of radiation treatment.

“It was shocking that someone so vibrant, so young, and so seemingly healthy could be diagnosed with such a terrible disease so suddenly,” Gundlach, a 22-year-old student at the University of Maryland College Park, told FoxNews.com.

For Gundlach, her boyfriend’s loss hit her hard. She spent the rest of the semester at school unable to focus or sleep, and she longed for a chance to reflect on what had happened, honor her boyfriend, and do something that really mattered.

That opportunity came when her mother introduced her to the 4K for Cancer Ride Across America program, a 4,000-mile bike ride across the United States.  She was immediately drawn to the idea of the trip.

“I never questioned applying for it,” Gundlach said.  “One of the hardest things about losing Ryan was that for the first time in my life, I was truly faced with the impossible … No matter what I did and no matter what I do, I can’t bring Ryan back. I can’t change the past, but I can make a difference in someone’s future, and that’s a big part of what the 4K is about.”

A program started by the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults (UCF), 4K for Cancer is a non-profit organization whose goal is to support, educate and connect young adults and their loved ones who have been affected by cancer.  

In 2013, more than 125 program participants traveled across America in different groups and raised nearly $775,000 to support young adults affected by cancer. Now in their 13th year traveling across the country, the organization hopes to make an even bigger impact by sponsoring four cross-country bike trips.

Cross-country safety

Bike trips of this scale require preparation and are accompanied by a variety of risks and health concerns.

“This is not something to take lightly,” Dr. Frank Alberta, an avid cyclist and orthopedic surgeon at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, told FoxNews.com. “It is orders of magnitude harder than a marathon or cycling race, because you are doing it day after day. It’s important to build an aerobic base and a tolerance to that repetitive stress.”

The repetitive motion of cycling each day can cause a variety of injuries, including tendonitis, saddle sores, and knee, hip and lower back damage.  Alberta also emphasized the risk of hydration and nutrition changes which could result in extensive weight loss.

For those gearing up to do a bike ride of this magnitude, preparation is key. Alberta recommended a slow, progressive buildup of exercise in order to tolerate the ride, as well as a solid nutrition and hydration plan.

“You don’t want to get off the couch like Forrest Gump and try to travel across America,” he said. “You won’t get very far.”

Gundlach had no cycling experience prior to the trip, so she prepared over the course of a few months, in a way similar to what Alberta recommended.  

“I started training by taking spin classes. Eventually once I got my bike, I started going on outdoor rides and aimed to increase my riding distance a little bit each time,” she said.

Alberta noted that the road itself can also pose a substantial health risk, as passing cars may be traveling at very high speeds.  He recommend that bikers travel with a group to demand respect from drivers, plan a route that avoids high traffic areas, and utilize resources from sports medicine societies and bike clubs.  

“Don’t take it lightly,” he added.

Riding to remember

Gundlach’s group began the 70-day bike ride on June 1 in Baltimore, and she expects to finish on August 9 in San Francisco.  The 30-member team is currently in Kansas and has biked over 1,300 miles.

Many of the other bikers in the group, like Gundlach, share a personal connection to cancer. As a reminder of this, the bikers dedicate each day of their ride, often writing the names of loved ones on the back of their legs to show their support.

“Sometimes when you’re climbing your third mountain for the day, and your legs are burning, and you don’t know if you can physically make it to the top, it helps to remember who is written on your legs and the person’s legs in front of you to help you keep pushing,” Gundlach said.

In addition to the rigorous bike ride, the group also makes stops to do service trips and contribute to local organizations. Gundlach’s team decorated paper lanterns for a Relay for Life event in Nashville, did yard work and maintenance at a Ronald McDonald house in Knoxville, and helped a local bike shop in Christiansburg, Va., disassemble old bikes to be used for parts. The group also plans to run a few bone marrow drives along the way.

For Gundlach, the most rewarding part of the journey has been facing and overcoming the daily challenges of the bike trip. The trip has also reinforced coping mechanisms she employs to deal with her boyfriend’s death while giving her an environment where it is okay for her to focus on what has happened.

“This is something that you never forget. You finish knowing you can make it through anything,” said Gundlach. “You walk away with a network of people, friends for life, self-confidence, strength and an appreciation for things that you do have.”

If you’d like to learn more about Gundlach’s journey or donate to the cause, visit her profile: http://4kforcancer.org/profiles/katie-gundlach/