In the early hours of Sunday morning, Jean Sellers was cycling under a full moon across the deserts of New Mexico. When it’s dark and quiet she has time to think.
“Dad, are you watching me now?”
Sellers, an oncology nurse and a 1975 graduate of Woodbridge High School, lost her father to cancer. Today ends her weeklong cross-country bike tour ? part of Lance Armstrong and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s Tour of Hope ? to raise awareness about the importance of clinical trials for cancer research.
Along with her 25 teammates and Armstrong, a five-time Tour de France champion and testicular cancer survivor, she will complete the 3,200-mile tour by riding into Washington this morning.
“I believe in this cause so much,” she said. “I’m doing this in memory of my patients and my dad. … Their spirit for living is what keeps me doing this.”
All of today’s cancer treatments were developed in clinical trials, but too few people participate in order for all of the potential therapies to be studied, according to a Bristol-Myers Squibb information sheet on the Tour of Hope Web site. Bristol-Myers Squibb is a cancer research and treatment company.
“We are a group of 26 that have a potential to change the way cancer care is delivered in this country,” Sellers said. “If we can change it with our faith, our prayers and support that we have received … then our mission will be accomplished.”
The team ranges in age from 29-57 years old. The members are cancer survivors, physicians, nurses, caregivers and research scientists.
Sellers, 46, now lives and works in High Point, N.C. She found out about the tour through an e-mail sent to oncology nurses. She applied through an online application that was supposed to take an hour.
“It took me a day,” she said. “I poured everything in my heart into it.”
Sellers was asked to join the team late on Aug. 8, after getting ice cream with her daughters, Amy, 20, and Amanda, 17.
“I started crying and screamed for my girls: I made it, I made it,” she said.
Tour team members had to be in some way connected to cancer and be physically fit enough to train 15 hours per week. More than 1,000 people applied; 26 were asked to join.
“I had no idea what was lying ahead,” Sellers said. “The training, the commitment ? it’s been extremely, extremely difficult.”
Just as her patients have inspired her, Armstrong has inspired her patients, she said.
“He’s relentless in trying to do what he can do to pave the way for a cure,” she said. “It’s a testimony of his strength.”
1991: A life-changing year
“Anyone who knew me in high school knew that I was a bookworm,” Sellers said. “I never exercised, never played sports ? I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now.”
Sellers said she baby-sat, sang in a choir and spoke up less.
“I was the one no one ever wanted on their teams,” she said. “And now I’m riding across the country with Lance Armstrong.”
The turnaround came in 1991 when Sellers’ father, George Burgess, died of a malignant brain tumor. Sellers picked up running and biking.
“It was a way to take the grief and get rid of hurt and pain,” Sellers said. “It took away the depression and the black cloud.”
In the same year, she went back to school to get a nursing degree. She found oncology, and 10 years later received her master’s in the field. In 2002, Sellers was named North Carolina Oncology Nurse of the Year.
Exercise provided a balance in her life, she said. It was a way to handle going to school and raising two girls. Her daughters would ride their bicycles alongside her as she ran.
Sellers has transformed from a leisurely runner and biker to a competitor. In April, she completed the Boston Marathon in three hours and 44 minutes.
“I refuse to be stereotyped into aging the way people think you should,” Sellers said. “The Tour of Hope came to me. It’s a great opportunity to increase my cycling.”
From a rider to a cyclist
“I’m facing the biggest challenge of my life physically,” Sellers said.
She increased her cycling from riding two or
three times a week with a group to riding six days a week with Rodney Simpson, a work colleague and licensed U.S. Cycling Federation Master’s Racer.
“I was not a competitive cycler before I started cycling with him,” she said. “He’s taught me so much. … It will be difficult to ever thank him.”
A typical training week had Sellers riding 15 hours, with Sunday being a rest day. Her daily rides ranged from one hour to five hours. She covers 250-350 miles in a week.
“She’s gone from a rider to a cyclist,” Simpson said. “I don’t think she ever doubted that she could do this because she knew what it was for.”
Simpson said Sellers has great endurance from her running background and has conquered the technical demands of cycling, including monitoring her heart rate, cadence and her position on the bike.
“She’s been amazed at when you push yourself what your body can do,” Simpson said.
After an initial team meeting in New Jersey, a training plan was implemented by Melissa Mantak from Carmichael Training Systems. CTS is headed by Chris Carmichael, Armstrong’s trainer. Sellers also weight trains three days a week and a nutritionist monitors her diet. She burns between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day on the tour and has 4 percent body fat.
“It’s the same way they analyze Lance [Armstrong],” Sellers said. “They analyze everything that goes in his mouth. They know how much we sleep. … The goal is to be healthy.”
Even with the effort Sellers puts out, she said the rides are rewarding.
“People ask what I think about when I’m out there,” she said. “You can hear the tree frogs, smell the fresh-cut grass. You’re overcome by the blessings in your life that you take for granted. Exercise replenishes me.”
Sellers flew to Los Angeles on Oct. 9 to meet up with her team and Armstrong. The team set out on their weeklong ride the next day.
The squad of 26 relays across the country in four groups. Each group rides about three hours, then spends the next nine hours resting, eating and being bussed to where they will start riding again.
“I have to have faith ? the same thing I ask of my cancer patients,” Sellers said. “I’m going to pull from within my heart every bit of energy to get through this. I’m doing this for them and I’m doing this to try and make a difference.”
While riding across the United States, the group will stop to promote clinical trials as an option for cancer treatment. Upon arrival in Washington, D.C., about 1,500 cyclists who raised at least $500 a piece for cancer research will join the Tour of Hope team.
Sellers’ sister, Nancy Burgess of Haymarket, raised more than $1,000 and will ride with her through D.C.
“When she got accepted into the tour, I went out and bought a bike,” Burgess said. As a marathon runner since 1995, Burgess said her “heart is good,” but she had to prepare different leg muscles for the ride.
For her first cycling event, Burgess, a 1985 Woodbridge graduate, said she is most excited about seeing the Tour team ride in at 11 a.m. from Pennsylvania.
“She’ll be leading the pack,” Burgess said of her sister. “I can’t wait.”
Sellers also has family and friends from North Carolina, Florida and her mother, Barbara Burgess of Woodbridge, welcoming her into D.C. today.
After the ride, “Cancer Promises” signed on the Tour of Hope Web site (http://www.tourofhope.org) will be delivered to President Bush. The promises show a commitment to become better informed about cancer and a renewal of America’s commitment to finding a cure for cancer in our lifetimes.
“With this whole experience,” Sellers said, “the closer I get to the end, the more I realize how incredible it is.”
Staff writer Emily Brown can be reached at (703) 878-4650.