When Steve Mars begins a 546-mile ride from Staten Island to Niagara Falls on Sunday to raise money for cancer research for the fourth consecutive year, he’ll again be carrying with him photos of his mother, a close friend and a cousin — all of whom died of cancer.
“I’m riding to honor people who have battled the disease and won and the people who have battled the disease and lost, and to change the outcome for future generations,” said Mars, of Plainview.
Mars is one of 19 Long Islanders and more than 180 people overall expected to ride in the sixth annual, weeklong Empire State Ride, which raises money for Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo.
Some of the donations fund Roswell’s clinical trials of experimental cancer treatments, which in the coming months will for the first time expand to Long Island under a recently announced agreement with Catholic Health Services.
Roswell is one of four comprehensive cancer centers in New York designated and funded by the federal government for cutting-edge treatments.
“The field of oncology has made such major strides in the past three to five years based upon novel research,” said Dr. Bhoomi Mehrotra, chair of cancer services for Catholic Health Services and director of the cancer institute at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill. “All of those advances have happened by individuals participating in clinical trials. … We need to be able to give access to those novel compounds, novel therapies, right here rather than having patients travel.”
Catholic Health Services hospitals have participated in some non-Roswell clinical trials, he said. Roswell offers access to trials for which CHS patients otherwise would have to travel upstate, he said.
The Empire State Ride will start on Staten Island, going over sometimes hilly terrain for 60 to 92 miles a day before ending in Niagara Falls on Aug. 3. Riders so far have received pledges of more than $740,000.
Mars, 58, said that each night at the campsite where riders stay overnight, a video is shown featuring someone alive because of a clinical trial.
“You’re realizing that maybe you’re contributing to saving the life of someone who may be out of options,” he said.
Mars said research done many years ago may have helped him survive a case of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He has been cancer-free for 11 years.
Improved cancer treatment and detection have — along with a drop in cigarette smoking — helped reduce the cancer death rate from 215 deaths per 100,000 people in 1991 to 156 per 100,000 in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society.
Scott Posner, 55, of St. James, will ride for the second year for wife Debby, 55, who is cancer-free after battling breast cancer.
“I’m confident if Debby had been diagnosed 30 or 40 years ago, it would have been a much different outcome,” he said.
Debby Posner will join her husband on the ride, even though until the last several months of training she only had been an occasional bike rider.
“I’m thinking, whatever challenge I have, I got through chemo and that was really difficult, and a lot of people are going through that now, and I have to do it for them,” she said. “That pushes me through.”
Rider Richard Noll, 50, of Syosset, said he thinks of his wife and three teenage sons.
“We’re all healthy, my kids are healthy, but you never know what is in store for you down the line,” he said. “And you can play a part in the medical advancement so that, God forbid, if somebody in my immediate family has the need in the future, the research and funding and technology is there.”
In addition to leading clinical trials, Roswell offers a wide range of treatment. The current agreement between Roswell and CHS is limited to clinical trials, but the two systems are exploring whether to broaden it to give CHS doctors access to the sometimes highly specialized cancer expertise of Roswell physicians via video hookups, a team approach especially beneficial for more complex cases and less common types of cancer, said Dr. Thomas Schwaab, chief of strategy, business development and outreach at Roswell Park.
“For many cancer patients, especially when the cancer becomes more advanced or when it is a less common cancer, it becomes a true runaround from one doctor to another doctor to another doctor until they have a plan,” Schwaab said. “The advantage for Long Island patients with this [potential] partnership is that they [would] have access to a Roswell Park specialist without ever having to get into a car.”