If Ben Pinkerton were alive, you’d probably find him biking the 100-mile route of The Ride, a bicycle fundraiser for cancer research developed by the University of Wisconsin that takes place on September 18.
Instead, like so many others who have died from cancer, Ben will be there in the hearts and minds of loved ones as they bike through eastern Dane County during this event. His wife Karla will be there, “thinking about him, absorbing the beautiful scenery and supporting cancer research on behalf of both of us,” she says.
Ben and Karla, both from Virginia, moved to Madison when Karla accepted a job after graduating from law school. As an athlete—a collegiate soccer goalkeeper and later a coach, an avid runner and cyclist—Ben was thrilled about the move, particularly because of the great cycling opportunities available in the region.
Their short time together in Madison was a period of great joy and deep sorrow. They both considered 2013 the best year of their lives. It was the year they got married and Karla got pregnant. But just a short time later Ben was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer with metastases to the liver and lung.
The treatment plan called for chemotherapy followed by surgery. Ben began chemotherapy treatments at another center and later transferred to the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center after consulting with Dr. Eugene Foley, chief of colorectal surgery, and Dr. Dustin Deming, assistant professor of hematology-oncology at the University of Wisconsin. “These guys were the best of the best,” Karla says. “We had no doubts about the care they were going to be able to provide.”
Karla gave birth to their son Daniel just as Ben was finishing his chemotherapy before surgery. Just a week later, with his body full of cancer, he rode the Trek 100, a charity ride for childhood cancer that he’d participated in previously.
Given his age—36 at the time of diagnosis—and fitness, he and his doctors decided on aggressive surgeries of the colon and liver. In July 2014, he was able to ride his bike to UW Hospital for his first surgery to remove the primary tumor in his colon. He had a second surgery a month later to remove a tumor from his liver. Both surgeries were successful, but the cancer eventually spread to his spine and brain. He then underwent 15 rounds of radiation.
Karla went with him to his appointments with Daniel in tow. “No one once questioned my having a baby there,” Karla says. “They just understood that this is our life. This is our family, and my husband wanted to see his son as much as possible.”
During one radiation treatment, Ben and Karla talked about trying to schedule a family photo before Ben lost his hair. After hearing about their difficulty in making it happen, a radiation oncology staff member arranged for a photographer to meet them on campus. “That photographer captured our last family photos. Ben didn’t come home after that,” Karla says.
It’s been more than a year since Ben died. Karla is still working through her grief and faces the challenges of balancing the demands of work and the needs of her now two-year-old son. “Daniel is as happy as can be,” Karla says. “Even during the darkest times, it’s hard not smile and laugh at that little guy.”
She has kept in touch with Ben’s doctors and is happy that Dr. Deming was able to bring to the university a promising new clinical trial to study immunotherapy as a way of treating colon cancer.
Karla is excited about The Ride because it provides a way to support the research of people like Dr. Deming as they seek new ways to help people facing cancer and helps raise awareness preventive measures. “Ben was adamant that people listen to their bodies and talk to their doctors about getting screened for cancer,” Karla says.
The Ride also offers Karla a chance to honor Ben by pursuing a passion they shared and to look to the future. “Life is so busy and crazy. I find peace while riding a bike. I’ll be thinking about Ben, the cycling we used to do together and the beauty of the landscape,” Karla says. “And hopefully, in a few years my son and I will be doing The Ride together.”