Elizabeth McGowan was only 15 years old when her father died of melanoma at the age of 44. When she was just out of college, McGowan was diagnosed with the same cancer that took her father.
At first, she thought it was a death sentence, but at 39, McGowan reached the major milestone of being five years cancer-free after over a decade of treatments.
To mark the occasion, she set out to bike 4,250 miles solo across America from the west to the east coast. Her new book, Outpedaling the Big C: My Healing Cycle Across America, documents not only her cycling journey, but her experience dealing with her cancer — as well as her father Ron’s.
“I want people to know that cancer is survivable. There is no fault in anybody who doesn’t survive, but I wanted people to see living evidence that you can get through this and have a robust life on the other side,” McGowan says.
The trip also served as a fundraiser for cancer research for Waukesha Memorial Hospital in Wis., where McGowan received many of her melonoma treatments. During the "Heals on Wheels" trip, she stopped in towns along her route to share her story and handout sunscreen coupons. As McGowan drove out to Oregon to start her journey across the U.S., she recalls that it wasn’t her health that was top of mind but the fact that she had made this celebration of being five years cancer-free so public.
“Some of the landscapes, up and down, I thought, ‘What am I doing? Why didn’t I just tell people I would ride around the state of Wisconsin? Wouldn’t that have been good enough?’,” she jokes.
McGowan says she also felt a new vulnerability writing this book. As a journalist, she was used to asking other people questions and getting them to open up. But now, McGowan was asking herself the questions to share her cancer story as well as how her father's illness impacted their family.
However, McGowan knew that this book couldn't turn into just a travel log of all the places and people she met along her bike ride, so she really pushed herself to explore her emotions.
This exploration led to finding new connections with McGowan's late father. Losing him at 15, she says he was an “undeveloped character” in her mind. Both the trip and the book helped to give more insight into what he must have been feeling.
“Making myself delve into [my father's] life and understand, and the cancer link was very strong, and I appreciated who he was and what he was going through, so I could make sense of who this mysterious man was,” says McGowan.
Her father and their New England upbringing conditioned McGowan to keep all emotions, other than strength, under the table.
“I had to learn how to make myself more vulnerable and expose myself, so to speak, in the right way and that was hard, and I wanted people to understand that,” explains McGowan.
McGowan says she wanted to share her story years after the ride to inspire others and help people through the hard times we all experience.
“Everybody has a cancer story, right? And I want people to see what’s possible. So that’s why I wrote the book,” she says.