Forever Linked

As he stood in front of the piece of artwork, Cory Lunger processed how both he and the piece will forever be linked.

“It was this beautiful piece of art,” Lunger said. “They sent me pictures of it through e-mail, but the photos didn’t do it justice.”

It was February 7, 2013, that an art dedication ceremony was held for HRA associate Cory Lunger in the McCoy Suite of the Ohio State University’s James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Cory has been battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) for the last five years. This month, the dedicated artwork is on display in the HRA-O main lobby, providing a reflection of Cory’s strength and unbreakable determination.

The artwork, “Riders on the Storm,” was created by Athens, Ohio artist and bicycle shop owner John Lefelhocz. The piece consists of hundreds of bicycle chain links that were individually hand painted and attached to a quilt background to form the image of a group of cyclists in mid-ride.

“I think the painting really got to everyone at the ceremony,” said fellow HRA associate and college friend Chris Lang.

The piece certainly resonated with Lunger, who is an avid cyclist. In fact, for the last four years, Lunger has participated in Pelotonia, a 180 mile bike trek across Ohio held annually in August, which riders raise money for cancer research through pledges. Pelotonia is also unique in that 100% of the money raised goes directly to cancer research in central Ohio.

“It wasn’t a moment for sorrow, it was a moment for joy for me.”

Diagnosed with ALL in early 2008, Lunger was quickly treated with chemotherapy, total body irradiation and a bone marrow transplant from his brother Adam. After these treatments, cancer was not detected in Lunger’s body, which meant he was in remission. Lunger then rode with his brother Adam in the inaugural Pelotonia in 2009.

The journey took the brothers 100 miles south, from Columbus to Athens on day one, and then 80 miles back north on the second day to Slate Run Metro Park, which is just outside of Columbus.

Lunger recalled reaching the first finish line in Athens, where his mother, father, younger half-sister and older sister Holly were waiting for him, and said that no tears were shed.

“It wasn’t a moment for sorrow, it was a moment for joy for me,” Lunger said. “I know people have tears of joy, but that’s not me,” Lunger said.

Lunger would go on to ride in the next three Pelotonias, successfully raising funds each time.

With the victory of riding in Pelotonia, however, came setbacks. After only being able to complete 100 miles in Pelotonia 2010 due to knee and hip pain, tests revealed ALL had returned just two weeks after completing the journey. Lunger would again be immediately treated with a new chemotherapy regimen, total body irradiation and finally a second bone marrow transplant in March of 2011, but recovery would be more difficult this time.

Lunger did manage to ride 50 miles in Pelotonia 2011, this time joined by his sister Holly, who was inspired by his determination in the inaugural Peletonia.

By May 2012, Lunger’s ALL had returned.

Lunger described bone marrow transplants as “fix all” treatments, and with two that failed to eradicate his cancer, there were few options left.

“If a bone marrow transplant doesn’t fix you, then it’s kind of determined that you’re never going to be cured,” Lunger conceded.

Accepting that reality, Lunger turned his effort to helping nd a cure for ALL. In June of 2012, he was able to enroll in a clinical trial at the Cleveland Clinic to provide data for ALL research, and perhaps increase his own quantity of life. Though the treatment helped him once again achieve remission, the effects of the trial — which was geared more toward patients in the earlier stages of ALL — took a toll on Lunger physically, to the point where good days were few and far between.

“His determination was unrelenting.”

At that point, after discussion with his trusted caretakers at the James Cancer Hospital, Dr. Rebecca Klisovic and Nurse Practitioner Jon Mickle, Lunger decided to forgo further treatment altogether. Lunger said it came down to a quality of life versus quantity of life decision, and he removed himself from the clinical trial and set off to live life to its fullest.

A month later, he was riding again — this time completing 50 miles in Pelotonia 2012 with his sister Holly, who then went on to complete 100 miles.

Cory’s remission however would be short lived, as test results once again revealed the presence of ALL in February of this year.

Throughout all of the struggle, however, Lunger has kept on pedaling.

“Each time he’d get the cancer into remission, he would get back on the horse… back at work and ready to go, and he would start riding again with same passion and drive as before,” said associate and friend Ben Henney. “His determination was unrelenting.”

“He would go for a ride with friends and not be able to walk the next day… but to him it was worth it,” Lang added.

Mickle said it was Lunger’s love of cycling that made the “Riders on the Storm” artwork so special to Lunger.

“I think he finds that it embodies him so well,” Mickle said.

Making the piece even more powerful is the back story of how it came to the James.

The artwork was purchased from the artist by Mickle’s neighbor, Roxana Deadman, who had only met Lunger once. The one-time meeting formed such an impression on Roxana that she purchased the artwork and donated it to the James in Lunger’s honor.

“I think he was blown away,” Henney said.

“The idea that someone put this kind of time and effort into a piece like that, and then someone else came along to donate it.”

While at the ceremony, Lunger said his first thought was to question why Roxana had chosen to donate such a great piece of art to be displayed at the James in his honor.

“I didn’t expect it… but it’s a beautiful thing that they came out of the blue and decided to do that,” Lunger said. “Words couldn’t express the gratitude I had for the donor, the artist, and everybody who attended the event.”

After the piece leaves HRA-O, it will return to the eleventh floor of the current James, where it will remain dedicated to Lunger on the floor where he’s been treated as an outpatient the past five years. When the new James Cancer Hospital is completed in 2014, the artwork will be relocated to the new Hematology and Oncology Clinic on the second floor.

Lunger noted that the ceremony was the springboard for the Cory Lunger Endowment Fund, a fund being established at the James that will focus on ALL research for adults.

“I would like to contribute in any way I can to get the ball rolling to try to find a cure for the disease that’s taking my life,” Lunger said.

Currently, Lunger said that the endowment fund is receiving money from selling candles that were graciously donated by Root Candle Co. He is also in talks to possibly sell prints of “Riders on the Storm” and plans are in the works to establish annual charity fitness events, such as a 5k run and a cycling event, to help fund the endowment.

Assisting Lunger are Nurse Practitioner Mickle, who handles the fund day-to-day, the art donor’s daughter Elisa Deadman, who has made flyers and candle labels, and some of his closest friends and colleagues.

Through his endowment fund Lunger is striving to realize his dream of finding a cure for ALL in the future. He also had some advice for those with cancer in the present.

“Stay positive and do whatever you can in your control to make your care smoother and the most beneficial,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”

But even more eloquent is the honest and simple advice that he willingly shares, with a smile, to everyone.

“Live day-by-day and live life to the fullest.”

For more information about the Cory Lunger Endowment Fund, visit CoryLungerFund.org.