From cancer survivor to cross-country cyclist At the age of 18, Mike Cohen was diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) – then he discovered adventure

On Saturday morning, January 17, 2004, I was walking to work in the snow. I had felt a disgusting feeling of illness for the past couple of weeks. The lumps underneath my throat were becoming more and more visible. I was exhausted after sleeping for ten or fifteen hours a night. I wasn’t able to hang out with my friends as much as I’d liked. I started to feel like my body was fighting to stay alive. As I was walking to work, I felt the urge to spit, and coughed a huge chunk of phlegm into the snow bank. It was covered in blood. I went to wipe my mouth, there was blood all over my glove. At that point I knew something wasn’t right.

After being sent home from work, my employers seeing how sick I looked, I went straight to bed. My mum told me to wait for my dad to get home. In the middle of the night, I woke up in excruciating pain. I was yelling at the top of my lungs. My parents rushed upstairs to see what was wrong. My dad picked me up and we rushed to the hospital. After being attended to by the hospital staff, they gave me painkillers that knocked me out until the next morning. As I gained consciousness, attached to dozens of tubes and monitors, my mom told me the news. I was diagnosed with cancer.

On Sunday evening, January 18, 2004, at the age of 18, I was diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia). During the first of two years of intense chemotherapy treatments, I was diagnosed and treated for pneumonia, multiple blood clots in my lungs and congestive heart failure. My cardiologist told me several times that I wouldn’t make it, that I wouldn’t leave the hospital.

I left the hospital and never turned back. In fact, in 2009, just a few years after my last round of chemotherapy, I ran and completed the San Francisco Half Marathon in less than three hours. Three years after that, to celebrate six years cancer free, I decided I needed to do something crazy. Thanks to the inspiration of Forrest Gump, I decided to cycle across the United States.

3,168 miles and 125,000 feet of elevation later, I went from being a cancer survivor, to a cross-country cyclist. Every day I wake my life is better. I appreciate life after being so close to losing everything and everyone in it. I am currently at the physical capability to ride any amount of distance. Mentally, I am always seeking ways of transferring my experiences into ways I could help others.

Giving back, I feel, is the biggest responsibility of every survivor near and far. Having physical goals, whether they’re extreme and out of reach, or realistic and simple is I feel the key to an incredible survivorship. Focusing on something as far-fetched as riding across the country helped me train and keep my goal in front of me. At one time I was dedicating all of my time and effort to stay alive, so now anything that is less in priority is far easier to accomplish.

Many people ask me on an almost daily basis how I beat cancer. How did I ride across the country? And if I’m honest, the two were quite similar, believe it or not. In order to get through a day in the life of a cancer patient, you need to focus on that day. Nothing more. Many things can happen that are completely unforeseen. When riding across the country, you can only focus on each and every pedal stroke. Staying on the bike, staying on the course. Enjoy the surroundings. You never know when life decides to change without asking your opinion. Keep pedaling and you’ll get wherever you want to go.


Words: Mike Cohen

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