In the Midst of Battling Thyroid Cancer, This Cyclist Is Planning a Ride to Raise Awareness

·5 min read
Photo credit: Courtesy Thomas Drayton
Photo credit: Courtesy Thomas Drayton

Name: Thomas Drayton
Age: 50
Hometown: Burnsville, Minnesota
Occupation: IT Tech Support Manager
Time Cycling: 6 years

I was always an athlete when I was younger, but I had slowed down from about the age of 30 to 45 and wasn’t very active. But in 2015, I got my 1998 mountain bike down from hanging in the garage and rode around the block. It was between doing that and buying a new motorcycle, but I thought to myself, “Well, I already own a bike, so that’s a lot cheaper—I may as well do that.”

My heart felt like it was going to burst through my chest when I started riding, but I kept at it—slowly becoming active again and riding every few days.

But my world changed in September 2020 when I was diagnosed with stage 4C medullary thyroid cancer at 49 years old. Initially, my symptoms weren’t very concerning, and not being a medical professional, I didn’t realize they were connected to my thyroid. Before I started riding my bike again, I had noticed my face was always red. While it was understandable as I was a little out of shape, I also found that I was exhausted after only one block on my bike, as well as sometimes just walking up a flight of stairs.

The big sign that should have concerned me was that sometimes I would have pain in my chest or throat when swallowing—even a sip of water could cause me pain at times. It was random, and I never knew when it would happen, but I just thought, “Oh well, this happens to people sometimes.” But then it started to happen quite often. I also could not breathe deeply when it was cold outside—if it was 45 degrees or colder and I rode my bike, I would get the feeling of liquid in my lungs and I would spend one to two days coughing.

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I started dating a wonderful woman during the pandemic who is a nurse practitioner, and she was annoyed I hadn’t had a physical checkup in many years and suggested that I get one just to be sure everything was okay. So I did, and the family doctor I saw found a large lump on my thyroid.

I had my thyroid removed and was officially diagnosed with medullary thyroid cancer, which is a very rare cancer with a rare mutation, so chemotherapy drugs that will work for most people will have no effect on my cancer. It’s disappointing to be told by four different medical oncologists at four different institutions that I cannot be cured and “nothing will add time to your life.”

It’s been almost a year now, and scans have shown that my metastases [the development of secondary growths away from a primary site of cancer] have not grown—which is great, for now. The problem is that I have metastasis in my vertebrae, hips, and lungs. Metastasis creates metastasis, so it’s only a matter of time before I reach the “tipping point” and it starts to grow exponentially.

Before my diagnosis, I would ride about three to four days a week. But a 10-mile mountain bike trail would wipe me out for the day, even after more than four years of riding. I rode The Back 40 trail race in Bentonville, Arkansas, a few years ago and was so physically exhausted that I went back to my hotel, laid down, and barely moved the rest of the day.

I’ve been lucky so far that I feel almost no side effects from my metastasis. However, if I stand for too long, I feel a burning pain in my back where my T8 vertebrae is, due to it being nearly 90 percent metastasized and starting to grow inward toward my spinal cord.

On the plus side, since the thyroid removal, I’ve had much more energy. I’ve ridden the local trails more often and faster than ever, and have been less tired afterward. Riding helps take my mind off my diagnosis—even just for a little while—and makes me happy. I ride every day—sometimes it’s on my favorite mountain bike trail near my house, and other times it’s typically 15 to 20 miles on my road bike.

My new normal is trying to appreciate my life as much as I can. I’ve read research papers that say I have a 20 percent chance to survive 10 years, but doctors say that everyone is different. Putting a 10-year timeframe on things has not been easy to accept, and I’m always looking for drug trials I could possibly enroll in and other treatments that might possibly help.

Since there are no group fundraiser bike rides in Minnesota for thyroid cancer, I’m starting one of my own. From September 25–29, I’m going to ride a roughly 14-mile-long paved trail around Elm Creek Park in Champlin, Minnesota, seven laps per day for five days. Some people have already said they will join in for a few laps—and anyone is more than welcome!

One hundred percent of the money raised for my event goes to the Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association (ThyCa). I want to help someone get diagnosed before they get to stage 4 like me, and hopefully I can achieve that goal. So far, I’ve raised almost $4,000 for ThyCa. (You can contribute to my GoFundMe here.)

After this ride, I want to “go big.” I want to do something even crazier so that I can keep reaching people about the need to have a simple yearly physical, especially men—men are less likely to go see a doctor for a yearly physical than women, by far. With yearly physicals, if there is a problem, it can hopefully be diagnosed before it becomes life threatening. I’m planning to ride across every U.S. state from west to east.

I love cycling, and I’m so glad I finally rode my bike that day six years ago. It makes me so happy to be outdoors. Having a hobby that makes me feel good about myself and what I’m doing honestly has made me a happier person.

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