BIOE student biking cross-country for cancer

Susan McKenna
2/25/2014 10:41:00 AM

Illini 4000 logo.
Illini 4000 logo.
Illini 4000 logo.
Riding a bike across the United States to fight cancer sounded like a unique way to spend the summer to biking enthusiast Grace Deetjen, sophomore in Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was Quad Day of her freshman year at Illinois when Deetjen first heard about the Illini 4000. The group of UI students created the non-profit organization as a cancer-related excursion to raise money and increase awareness.

When she initially thought about making the 72-day cross-country trek, the Naperville, Ill., native was one of those rare people whose lives had not been touched by cancer. Numerous students enter the field of bioengineering because a family member suffered from cancer and they are determined to improve on the ways the disease is prevented, diagnosed and treated. But when Deetjen enrolled in the Bioengineering program at Illinois, it was the development of orthotics and prosthetics (braces and artificial limbs) that had captured her attention.

Bioengineering sophomore Grace Deetjen shows off her new bike, which she says she nicknamed " 'Phoenix' for the healing that it brings and for its lightness."
Bioengineering sophomore Grace Deetjen shows off her new bike, which she says she nicknamed " 'Phoenix' for the healing that it brings and for its lightness."
Bioengineering sophomore Grace Deetjen shows off her new bike, which she says she nicknamed " 'Phoenix' for the healing that it brings and for its lightness."
Her outlook recently changed dramatically. In November 2012, Deetjen’s mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in her jaw. And recently, her best friend’s father developed pancreatic cancer. All of a sudden, cancer was much more than six or so degrees of separation away, and the scare left her believing that she was given a new purpose to fulfill. In 2014, with her mother’s cancer now in remission, Deetjen is newly focused on the underlying reason for her upcoming bike trip.

On May 24, 2014, the 21-member team will depart from New York City. They are scheduled to arrive in San Francisco on August 3, with numerous stops along the way. Deetjen says she is excited about raising money for cancer organizations and the idea of crossing the country on a bike (especially because she recently purchased a new one for the occasion). But she is particularly looking forward to another aspect of the trip — the opportunity to hear the individual stories of people who are battling cancer in whatever ways they can.

Part of the Illini 4000 mission is to tell those stories. So the team will take their bikes to hospitals and clinics, where they will interview survivors, medical personnel and other caregivers, and those who have lost a loved one — anyone who has dealt with cancer and is willing to participate. The resulting video and photographs will be woven into an evolving traveling exhibit that also will appear on the Portraits Project website, the Illini 4000’s tribute to the names and faces of people affected by the disease. One story that inspired Deetjen personally is that of a Marine whose brother had cancer. The serviceman said it was especially tough to deal with because, “Marines don’t cry.”

The Illini 4000 is a highly focused, student-run organization. UI students started planning the inaugural Illini 4000 Bike Across America ride in 2006, and the group first wheeled its way from New York to San Francisco in 2007. Even though they lose team members to graduation each year, many early riders choose to remain involved — often as board members — so they can ensure the group’s continuity and help the new crop of riders with planning and logistics.

The Illini 4000 students currently are raising money to support the team’s mission. The goal, however, is not to find funding for the riders. Instead, the team plans to donate 100 percent of contributions to entities involved in cancer research, treatment, prevention and support programs.

Each rider is asked to raise $3,500, with an overall team goal of $150,000. Approximately three-quarters of that is expected to go directly to cancer research and the remaining quarter to patient support services, such as a camp for children battling cancer. Since it began in 2006, the Illini 4000 has contributed more than $500,000 to cancer-related efforts.

The only equipment the team members are issued is their riding attire — bike shorts and two Illini 4000 jerseys, the latter of which will surely make them an attractive site as the 20-member team whizzes by on the roadways. The students are diligent about carefully planning a safe, enjoyable trip that requires minimal costs, as they eat PBJ sandwiches for lunches, take care of their own equipment and maintenance, and schedule no-cost lodging in campgrounds and churches along the way.

To help raise her individual goal, Deetjen has used a bit of creativity. She says she loves creating craft items and is selling customized braided bracelets she designs and makes herself. On Friday nights, she offers homemade cookies for sale along Green Street in Campustown. In addition, the team holds periodic “gold sprints,” racing each other on stationary bikes with motivational music at the Canopy Club during the semester, as well as selling items on the Quad and at Illini football games.

The team is training rigorously throughout the year to prepare for a 70/70 trip: an average of 70 miles per day on a trek that spans more than 70 days. They are running for cardiovascular benefit, taking on strategically mapped-out training rides prior to the event — including a required total of 400 miles in the saddle — and participating in several seminars to learn to take care of their bikes. And Deetjen also has been a training partner for a friend who will be running a half marathon in April.

Although she started her Bioengineering career at Illinois with a singular passion for prosthetics, through the Illini 4000 project Deetjen also has since developed a keen interest in drawing attention to the different cancers that exist. In the Fall 2013 semester, she had a chance to do some research in the BIOE 201 and 206 courses, and she convinced her study group to take on pancreatic cancer as their subject. The group created a computer model of a cellular pathway involved in several cancers, including pancreatic, in the hope of working toward a diagnostic method that would help detect the disease earlier and increase survival rates. The work they did “has promise,” she says. Early diagnosis is important, because the pancreas is rather hidden in the body, she explained — making it harder to detect the disease — and the symptoms are similar to other unrelated conditions.

Deetjen says her mother’s chemotherapy was particularly difficult, as the long-term side effects included chronic fatigue and some brain effects. Deetjen’s safety is the primary concern for her family, but her mother also wondered why the team was raising funds for research to develop what she considers harmful chemo drugs. Having experiencing the chemicals first-hand, Deetjen's mom prefers cancer prevention research over chemotherapy. Deetjen says she was able to explain that, throughout her Bioengineering courses she has learned that researchers are developing many newer, more novel treatment methods that are better at targeting cancerous cells without damaging surrounding tissue, and that’s what bioengineering is all about. “It’s not all ‘more of the same.’ ”


Portraits Project website



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