UMBC senior joins cross-country ride for cancer victims

The farthest Michelle Wong had ever ridden before was from Baltimore to Washington, a roughly 50-mile bike trek. But the UMBC senior was unfazed by what lay ahead of her Sunday morning as she embarked on a 70-day bicycle journey from Baltimore to Portland, Ore., as part of the Ulman Cancer Fund for young adults' 4K for Cancer ride.

As the crow flies, it's about 2,800 miles, or 4,000 kilometers, from Baltimore to Portland.

Wong, 22, of Silver Spring, was among 88 students, most from local colleges, who departed early Sunday morning from the Inner Harbor, kicking off the 11th annual event. Before leaving, the riders dipped the back tires of their bicycles in the harbor waters. Wong was part of a group headed for Portland, while others were bound for San Francisco or Seattle.

Along the way, the 4K for Cancer group — the program was launched at Johns Hopkins in 2001 — will stay at churches and YMCAs. The riders are expected to offer community services to cancer organizations across the nation.

Wong said the group works with the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodges, residences for cancer patients and caregivers.

"We usually cook dinner for them," Wong said.

She said she was riding in memory of her mother, Natalie, and in support of her grandmothers, Ethel On and Vernan Wong. Michelle Wong was 10 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and 16 when she died.

Her grandmothers are both battling breast and colon cancer.

"I think it builds everyone's passion," said Wong, speaking of those with loved ones who either have cancer or have succumbed to it. "I think that's what drives and motivates each individual [in the 4K for Cancer], and everyone feeds off each other."

Wong called herself a beginner when it comes to riding long distances. But, she added: "I'm pretty good. I have good hand-to-eye coordination." She rode from Baltimore to Washington in the spring, during the cherry blossom festival, to prepare for the 4K for Cancer journey.

Before the riders took off, the Ulman Cancer Fund's president, Brock Yetso, told them that 70,000 young adults aged 15 to 39 are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States, and that an estimated 10,000 young adults die annually from cancer, according to figures from the National Cancer Institute.

"Over the next 70 days, there's going to be 13,000 who will be diagnosed," Yetso said. "And over the course of the ride, there's going to be an estimated 2,000 adults … who will lose their battle to cancer.

"Every rider is riding for someone they know affected by cancer," he continued. "I know it means a lot to them from the mission perspective. They've been spending the past eight months raising money, training."

Said Yetso: "Physically, this is probably the hardest thing they'll ever do, and emotionally it will be the most challenging thing they'll ever do. It means much more than they even know."