Cycling across Canada in honour of my son Josh – a brain cancer survivor

Ten years ago, I heard the words no parent should ever have to hear: “Your Drew&Joshson has brain cancer.”

It was at that moment that I knew our lives would be changed forever. At the age of nine, my son Josh was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. After enduring a 10-hour surgery, seizures, a stroke, a post-surgery syndrome that left him unable to walk or talk, 31 radiation treatments and 52 weeks of chemo, it became clear that Josh was a fighter.

Today, Josh is cancer free and starting his first year of college. In honour of his 10-year milestone as a cancer survivor, I recently rode across Canada with 25 other cyclists in the Sears National Kids Cancer Ride. My teammates included childhood cancer survivors as well as parents who lost their children to cancer and are riding in their memory. Our journey began in Vancouver on September 5 and wrapped up in Halifax on September 21.

Drew Nelson photos

Every morning, there was a dedication for a child who died from cancer or survived it.  We rode for one special child each day. On September 18, we rode in honour of Josh.  It was a very emotional, special day.

My teammate and friend Mark read a moving dedication and quoted the words of Josh: “Those of you who know me, know that I’m a fighter. Cancer may have taken away my ability to walk, but it can never take away my ability to dream. I know first-hand how it feels to be a prisoner in the hospital and endure the surgeries and the endless needles and treatments. I know how it feels to lose my hair, throw up regularly and watch other kids around me earn their wings. I lost a part of my childhood that I will never get back. I know how it feels to look different, to be different. That’s something that I wouldn’t wish for any other kid to go through. I’m so grateful and proud of all of you, especially my dad, for helping to make this change.”

Nine months of preparation

My teammates and I cycled an average of 150 kilometres every day – rain or shine. The second relay team cycled more than 200 kilometres a day. The first three days were particularly challenging with torrential downpours, slippery conditions and steep terrain.

Drew Nelson on bike photo

I began training seriously for this epic adventure in January. During the winter months, I exercised daily – practicing yoga, doing spin classes, swimming and weight training. From April to August, I trained outdoors, cycling a total of 4,500 kilometres.

Bravery beads signify courage and strength

In the hospital, children with life-threatening illnesses earn bravery beads to commemorate every test, treatment, surgery and milestone. Josh has several necklaces with too many beads to count. I wore two of his beads on this journey: the bead he received when he started to lose his hair after starting chemo and his last bead he got at the end of chemo.

I also wore two beads from Nolan, a six-year old boy who lost his battle to cancer. When I was exhausted and facing another hill climb, those beads reminded me of the struggles and strength of Josh and Nolan. Each pedal stroke was made easier when I thought of them.

Reuniting with Josh

I reunited with Josh on September 16 and rode alongside him from Brantford to Toronto. It was a wonderful experience! Josh rode at the back of a tandem bicycle with a friend leading the way at the front. My wife Rina and our two other sons, Kyle and AJ, watched with pride. Rina was also a very welcome sight at the finish line in Halifax. As I rode to the finish line, she snapped pictures to remember this momentous occasion.

Showing your support

While my cross-Canada ride is over, I continue to raise money for children’s cancer research and support. Thanks to the generous support of family members, friends and TELUS team members, I have already raised more than $42,000. You are welcome to support my fundraising campaign by making an online donation. All funds will be directed to childhood oncology programs and community programs offered by pediatric oncology hospitals and centres across Canada.

Thank you for your support.

Drew Nelson is a sales representative on the Physician Solutions team in TELUS Health & Payment Solutions.