Meet the Endurance Athletes Racing to Beat Blood Cancer

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When Bobby DeWees’s grandfather died of leukemia in March of 2022, he wanted to honor him. So, he decided to test his limits. He’d train to race Hawaii’s Lavaman Triathlon in under three hours—and he’d raise $67,000 for leukemia research along the way. 

The challenge? While DeWees was an accomplished athlete, he’d never broken the three-hour mark before. And he’d never tried to raise anywhere near that kind of money. He needed help. So, he reached out to an organization that soon became his strength: The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).

The Nonprofit that Changed the Game

Eighty years ago, the kind of cancer that killed DeWees’s grandfather would have been incurable. Most leukemia patients died within three months of diagnosis. But the elder DeWees actually lived two decades with the disease—a miracle compared to what many other patients faced before LLS came into the picture.

When LLS was founded back in 1944, leukemia was still a terminal diagnosis. Like most patients, the founders’ teenage son Robert died shortly after diagnosis. Frustrated by the absence of treatment options, Robert’s grieving parents founded the Robert Roesler de Villiers Foundation in his honor. As the small, determined nonprofit grew, it became known as the Leukemia Society and, later, LLS. 

Today, LLS is the world’s largest health nonprofit dedicated to funding research for blood cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma. These three diseases currently account for nearly 10 percent of all new cancer diagnoses. They’re also linked to about 60,000 deaths every year in the U.S. alone.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
Bobby DeWees at the Lavaman Triathlon. (Photo: The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society)

But with the support of LLS, those numbers are slowly declining. Since 1949, the organization has raised more than $1.6 billion for research. Today, about 70 percent of all new FDA-approved blood cancer treatments are funded at least in part by LLS. And many of those treatments are highly effective. On average, leukemia patients now have a 66 percent survival rate—a far cry from the dire prognosis Robert’s parents had to face. 

In fact, DeWees’s grandfather was able to survive for more than 20 years after his initial diagnosis. “Thanks to experimental drugs and his never-quit attitude, Pop Pop survived to the ripe old age of 90-and-a-half,” says DeWees. 

But that’s not the only reason DeWees picked LLS to help him on the road to Lavaman. Perhaps surprisingly, LLS’s fundraising campaigns also offer the opportunity to gain access to personalized coaching. 

Fighting Cancer through Endurance Sports

If you’re reading this, you might already know that sports can change lives. Athletics are so often a source of confidence and strength, of tight-knit community and lifelong friendships. LLS recognized this early on. And it figured out how to channel that power for one more greater good: fundraising.

To prepare for Lavaman, DeWees ultimately joined LLS’s Team In Training, a program that provides endurance athletes with expert coaching, and training plans along with fundraising tips and advice. It’s an opportunity to simultaneously achieve your fitness goals and raise money for blood cancer patients and their families—all while inspiring people to support the mission.

It’s a proven formula: Not only did DeWees raise more than $67,000, but he also smashed his triathlon goal, crossing the finish line in just 2 hours and 45 minutes—earning him the coveted title of Team In Training’s Rookie of the Year.

Team In Training is just one of many ways that athletes across the country are supporting LLS’s work. Every year, cyclist raise almost $2M while training for events like America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride around Lake Tahoe and the two-day Scenic Shore Bike Tour, which takes riders along the coast of Lake Michigan. The event atmosphere and sense of community is so unique that many teams return year after year.

Take, for example, Team Riders of the Storm, which has been participating in the Scenic Shore Bike Tour for 20 years. The team is composed of about 40 members, all family and friends of individuals impacted by blood cancer. “Every rider is passionate about not just cycling but about improving the future of cancer treatment,” explains founding member Chuck Wagener.

Team Riders of the Storm at the Scenic Shore Bike Tour in 2023.
Team Riders of the Storm at the Scenic Shore Bike Tour in 2023. (Photo: Chuck Wagener)

The team started back in 2003 when Wagener’s brother, and several colleagues, received a leukemia or lymphoma diagnosis within a short period of time. 

“So, four of us work cronies got together and asked, ‘What can we do?’” Wagener says. They settled on the Scenic Shore Bike Tour. The team quickly fell in love with the challenging course and the friendly, high-energy atmosphere. They found themselves coming back year after year. Now, two decades later, they’ve raised $5.4 million for blood cancer research, and are the top team year after year. They also hold the all-time record for funds raised during the ride. 

“We truly believe the money is well spent. Our donations are funding research and advancements in treatment. And some of these advancements also support other kinds of cancers beyond cancers of the blood,” Wagener explains. On top of that, he adds,“This ride has a lot of meaning to us personally. Cancers of the blood touch so many people. And when you think about the kinds of challenges that these patients face, tired legs and a sore backside really don’t compare.”

While many of LLS’s athletic programs involve endurance sports, you don’t have to be working toward a big PR to support cancer research. Other events—like Shred for Red at Deer Valley Ski Resort in Utah bring skiers from all across the country to celebrate their fundraising efforts with a fun and unique day on the slopes amongst celebrated Olympians. And that’s just it, whether you’re joining an official LLS event or create your own fundraiser, every little bit counts. 

Joining the Fight Against Cancer

Every year, thousands of endurance athletes combine their philanthropic and endurance goals to fundraise for LLS. As they train for their chosen event, they simultaneously raise millions of dollars to support blood cancer patients and fund life-saving research. Some raise money through Team In Training while preparing the New York City Marathon, Walt Disney World Marathon, or even an exclusive hike in a national park. Others make an impact as they prepare to cycle up the coast of Lake Michigan during the Scenic Shore Bike Tour or around the shores of Lake Tahoe for America’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride.

While all participants are celebrated, there is a group of over-achievers that go above and beyond in their fundraising. These individuals and teams raised a collective $9.6 million for LLS this year.

 

All these campaigns help drive the LLS mission and fund life-saving research. But they also have another benefit: a domino effect that inspires one athlete after another to chase their dreams.

DeWees and his Lavaman finish inspired his own father, Don DeWees, Jr., to take on a challenge of his own. This year, Don is cycling more than 4,300 miles across the U.S. to raise even more money for LLS. 

“Turning 65 this year and losing my dad made me think it was now or never,” he wrote on his Instagram page. “I decided I needed to do something in his honor.” Together, the DeWees Family hopes to hit the $100,000 mark by the end of the year—a legacy Pop Pop would be proud of. 

Got a race coming up? You can support LLS by joining Team In Training for your event, or by participating in any LLS Athletic Event. Learn how to become a team member, advocate, or volunteer at LLS.org.


The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society funds lifesaving blood cancer research around the world, provides free information and support services, and is the voice for all blood cancer patients seeking access to quality, affordable, coordinated care. 


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