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Putting Pedal to the Mental

May 8, 2023

For Bianca Hayes, cycling was a distraction and an outlet — a way to physically push through the pain of losing her sister to ovarian cancer. From borrowing a bike to participate in her first Tour de Cure five years ago to co-captaining the OVCARE team today, she’s hit some incredible milestones along the way.

Bianca Hayes in Manitoba on day six of her ride across Canada to raise money for ovarian cancer research. Photo by Coconut Creative.

Bianca Hayes didn’t even own a bike when her sister Katrina was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Nor did she have any idea that ovarian cancer survival rates had been stuck at only 50% for decades. Or that, unlike cervical, breast or colon cancer, there’s still no screening test for the disease.

“Like most women, I thought going in for a regular Pap test was enough, and would detect any kind of gynecologic problems,” she says. Instead, ovarian cancer’s symptoms are vague, and mimic other reproductive issues, which often results in late-stage diagnosis, when treatment options are limited.

Katrina during treatment with her son Calvin.

Katrina was young and healthy, 32 years old with a two-year-old son. “She was strong and tough, a 6-foot-1 Amazon. And yet one year later she was gone,” says Bianca. “Sweet and kind, and crazy smart — she skipped a grade and graduated high school at 16 — she was more than a sister, she was my favourite person.”

After losing Katrina in April 2018, nothing made sense, says Bianca. “I dealt with my grief in a few ways, most unconventional and not all healthy. Cycling, however, helped me gain a sense of control. Long distances on an open road gave me time to process my thoughts and sort through my emotions.”

Just months after Katrina passed, Bianca found herself pedaling 100 km a day for two days in B.C.’s biggest cycling fundraiser for cancer research, the Tour de Cure, presented by Wheaton Precious Metals.

“It was exhausting, but I was so inspired afterwards that I started planning something bigger.”

Bianca bought a bike off Craigslist and a year later rode 1700 km to San Francisco in 10 days, raising $20,000 for the BC Cancer Foundation. From there it was a natural leap to attempting to break the world record for cycling across the country, she laughs. “I thought, ‘It’s three times the distance to San Francisco, how difficult could that possibly be?’”

Mid-pandemic in June 2020, she set off from Vancouver and, after 19 grueling days, arrived in Halifax, raising another $40,000, and setting the record for the fastest woman to cycle across Canada. Guinness World Records, however, would only put it in their books if she did it in 15 days.

Bianca battled many obstacles including the weather on her 2022 ride. Photo by Coconut Creative.

And so, before her crew even drove back over the B.C. border, Bianca decided to try again — and raise even more money for ovarian cancer research. In 2022 she overcame extreme weather, and legs so swollen she had to swap out her cycling shoes for comfier Converse, and was just two days shy of her goal when her ride was cut short after a collision with a motorcycle in Quebec.

After recovering from a concussion and an injured ankle, Bianca is putting a third attempt on hold to once again champion ovarian cancer awareness and research by co-captaining the OVCARE (B.C.’s ovarian cancer research program) Tour de Cure team with BC Cancer’s Dr. David Huntsman.

“Bianca is a hero, maybe even a super hero,” says Dr. Huntsman, co-founder and director of OVCARE. “She’s turned a tragedy in her family into something positive, for her and for everyone who interacts with her.”

“Research is tough,” he adds, “it can be frustrating, but when our team is challenged we think, if Bianca can ride across Canada, we can do this.”

But while it’s inspiring to have Bianca lead the OVCARE Tour de Cure team, “I don’t expect us to keep up with her,” Dr. Huntsman laughs. “She’ll have to wait for us at the finish line.”

Founded in 2000, OVCARE was formed by a team of Vancouver-based physicians and scientists who joined together with a common vision of enhancing ovarian cancer research. Their Tour de Cure team has participated in the fundraising ride since 2009, raising more than $1.3 million. The funds fuel the heart of OVCARE, supporting core facilities, pilot projects, training and investing in new team members.

Bianca Hayes

Photo by Melanie Katcher.

Participating in the Tour de Cure also offers the OVCARE team (which peaked at 94 riders in 2016) something science can’t — a personal connection to their shared cause, says Dr. Huntsman. “It’s an opportunity for us to connect outside of the lab in our very ambitious mission to decrease death and suffering from gynecologic cancers by 50%.”

“In addition to funding OVCARE’s critical work, we also need to raise more public awareness to catch ovarian cancer earlier, when it’s more treatable, to stop this silent killer from stealing women from their families,” says Bianca.

“This work lands on the shoulders of the loved ones left behind. I do it by getting on my bike.”

Bianca has raised $145,000 of her $1 million goal to make a difference for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer — help her and BC Cancer improve outcomes by donating to the OVCARE team today.

Powering cancer research and care in B.C., the Tour de Cure is an epic two-day ride from Cloverdale to Hope on Aug 26-27. Learn more or sign up to participate or volunteer at tourdecure.ca