Why I Ride: RAGBRAI for David

Team LIVESTRONG‘s Mary Ochowicz of Milwaukee, Wisc., is riding across Iowa in RAGBRAI for a fourth time after battling her own diagnosis, as well as her son’s.

In 2007 the Wisconsin Legislature lowered the legal age limit of blood donors to 16 with parental consent. Just a year later, the law would save Mary’s son’s life. When David Sczesny, 16 at the time, entered a Red Cross blood drive in June 2008, it was unexpected for him to be told he couldn’t donate because he was anemic. By September his mother had scheduled appointments for David at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin to visit a hematologist, who found abnormalities in David’s blood and immediately required him to be checked into the hospital.

“I remember as I was getting ready to leave the hospital that day, they handed me a book,” Mary said. “The first page said, “If you have received this book, you are the parent or legal guardian of a child with cancer. It was any parent’s nightmare to read that sentence.”

After diagnosing David with myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer of the immature blood cells in bone marrow, the doctors determined that he needed a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible. Mary, her husband, and David’s sister were all tested — each resulting in only half matches. There were no matches in the National Bone Marrow Registry.

As David’s disease progressed Mary agreed to be the donor. A mammogram to reassure her health status resulted in Mary’s diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer, the deadliest type of breast cancer. That same day, doctors took out 18 punctures of a tumor in Mary’s breast.

“I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “But I didn’t want to die and not be there for David. That was what I was most concerned with.”

In December, after Mary underwent a double mastectomy, a donor was finally found for David and a bone marrow transplant was scheduled for February 2009. Mary would go on to survive six months of chemotherapy and 33 rounds of radiation.

The Ochowicz family quickly got involved with the LIVESTRONG Foundation soon thereafter and used its free programs and services to help with their diagnoses. Mary’s friends at the Foundation encouraged her and her son through every step of their respective battles.

Fresh off of treatment, Mary registered for RAGBRAI for her first time in 2010.

“I was a mess,” she said. “I was bald, I was bleeding, but my teammates were there for me every second of it. My bike was my safe haven; I could cry and scream and just have some quiet time for my thoughts. It was my freedom, my refuge, my therapy.”

A year later David and Mary’s physical health statuses were both improving, but David’s treatment had taken a toll on his mental health. He was experiencing secondhand illnesses and had become addicted to the pain medication of his treatment.

In the years following he slipped into a severe depression. In January 2014, David left this world on his own terms at 21 years old.

“He was the sweetest, nicest person you’d ever know. The damage from treatment just ended up being too much. He went through five and a half years of hell and was ripped from his life at just 16. I call it the “aftermath of cancer.” Survivorship is about so much more than being cancer-free. The treatment turned his entire world upside down. He died from mental illness, a direct result of the cancer.”

That same year Mary registered to ride in RAGBRAI again. Though she doesn’t remember much of that year, Mary’s teammates supported her through every stop. Now Mary will ride again in remembrance of David and their battles against cancer. Team LIVESTRONG designed a tribute jersey for David for this year’s ride to honor the fight and his legacy.

“I love my LIVESTRONG family so much,” she said. “I could call any one of them at any time and they’d do anything for me. That kind of love and support is a miracle. I felt like I lost my purpose when David passed away, but I’ve realized my purpose is to encourage others and to support the Foundation. I decided to stay up and to stay strong. That’s why I ride — to think about my beautiful son. This is my finish line.”

To donate to Mary, visit her fundraising page. To learn more about RAGBRAI or sign up for an event with Team LIVESTRONG, visit: www.TeamLIVESTRONG.org.

Originally published at live-livestrong-blog.pantheonsite.io on July 22, 2015.