In her first book, former Gazette reporter Elizabeth McGowan says getting a cancer diagnosis feels the same “as tumbling to the ground from a bicycle, smacking the unforgiving asphalt.”

“It’s scary and hurts like hell,” she writes in “Outpedaling ‘The Big C’: My Healing Cycle Across America,” published in September by Bancroft Press of Baltimore.

“You can choose to lie there in a dejected heap, waiting until an 18-wheeler squashes you into roadkill,” she said. “Or, you can pick yourself up and get on with living.”

McGowan chose to climb back on the bike.

In the spring of 2000, her oncologist gave her a clean bill of health after an exhausting 11-year bout with melanoma, a serious skin cancer.

Some people might have planned a party to celebrate.

McGowan plotted a 4,250-mile bike journey across the country.

“The bike ride is something I have always wanted to do,” she explained. “Exercising is my therapy. It was a way for me to be out there and thinking.”

During the 79-day odyssey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist raised awareness about melanoma and money for the Waukesha hospital that saved her life.

In addition, McGowan paid tribute to her late father, Ronald McGowan, who died of melanoma at age 44.

She also kept detailed notes about the places and people across what she called “a horizontal sliver of this glorious, sublime, complicated, and often frustrating country that we all call home.”

“Being on the bike allowed me to experience the full force of being alive,” McGowan wrote, “from the drumbeat of my heart down to my microscopic capillaries.”

Her book chronicles her powerful journey from Astoria, Oregon, to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast. McGowan, now 59, wanted the chapters to be more than an engaging travelogue.

So she elegantly wove into the narrative her own sobering saga of surviving melanoma and the story of her father dying of the insidious disease when she was 15.

“How much do you know when you are 15?” she asked. “You just soldier on. Writing this book made me answer the hard questions and rediscover my father. As a longtime reporter, I thought it would engage more people in the story.”

In the end, she crafted a book for anyone seeking inspiration to live life more deliberately and fully, especially those who have wrestled with cancer or who have lost loved ones to it.

A seasoned journalist, McGowan worked for The Gazette from December 1987 until spring 1991, while she was receiving chemotherapy treatments.

Today, she lives in Washington, D.C., where she is an energy and environment reporter. In 2013, McGowan won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting while working for the digital news startup InsideClimate News.

She called the book the hardest thing she has ever written.

“I was carrying this albatross around,” she said. “I needed to make sense of what happened to my father. I felt lighter when I was finished.”

Strength to persevere

McGowan traveled alone, puny and vulnerable on the roads, as nature pounded her with sleet, as she climbed crazy steep mountains and as she got caught in powerful slipstreams created by semis.

But when she needed motivation, she only had to think about how hard she has worked to stay alive.

Since age 24, she has been duking it out with melanoma, an often deadly cancer. In the decade after she discovered a skin lesion on her upper back, the illness spread to her lymph system, right lung, gallbladder and liver.

Many treatments involving immunotherapy, chemotherapy, extensive surgeries and the McGowan fighting gene kept her chugging along.

“If I can go through those things, I can go through a constant headwind, climb a mountain or cross a prairie,” she said. “I am not going to give up.”

Her transcontinental tour involved more than mental and physical stamina. Persistence was her No. 1 ally.

McGowan wants her audience to know that she is “no more noble than anyone else,” as she puts it, because she made a liberating and mesmerizing trip across America.

“I’m a regular person who decided to do something,” McGowan said. “Because I’m in the writing business, I decided to write about it.”

Stories about cancer

As she rode, McGowan made herself vulnerable by talking to people in communities along the way.

“Everyone has a cancer story,” she said.

People eagerly told her about loved ones and about themselves. They also showed kindness with invitations to supper or offers of a place to spend the night.

McGowan hopes her book will inspire readers to grab life in ways appropriate to them and to live with unbridled gusto.

“I want to show people who have cancer that you don’t have to be stationary,” she said. “You can have a full life. Why did I survive? I don’t know. But this was my way of expressing the joy of being alive.”

Anna Marie Lux is a human interest columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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