Riders hit the road for cancer patients

Riders passed by signs of children helped by the Jimmy Fund as they participate in the Pan-Mass Challenge in Lakeville on Saturday.
Riders passed by signs of children helped by the Jimmy Fund as they participate in the Pan-Mass Challenge in Lakeville on Saturday. (Stew Milne for The Boston Globe)

LAKEVILLE — There were 6,000 participants in this year’s annual Pan-Mass Challenge, but many more than 6,000 reasons to ride.

Three-year-old Cian Byrne was one of them.

Cian, a pale boy in an oversized Bruins shirt and Spider-Man shoes, with streaks of sunscreen showing under a lopsided hat, celebrated being cancer-free Saturday morning by playing with crocodile Legos and popping bubbles.

When Cian was 2, he was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer and began chemotherapy at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which the Pan-Mass bike ride supports through the Jimmy Fund.

“He’s been an absolute fighter,” said his mother, Sarah Byrne of Beverly. “He’s dealt with the pain and stress of the hospital so well. Better than me.”


Byrne quit her job as a realtor after Cian’s diagnosis. She spent the winter months taking care of her son, hoping his treatment would work. When the stress grew overwhelming, she said, her 5-year-old son, Owen, gave her hugs and said, “Mom, it’s OK. I love you.”

On St. Patrick’s Day, the family received a call with the news they desperately wanted to hear: Cian was in remission. For his birthday, the family threw a huge party themed “Cian is 3 and cancer-free.”

The Byrne family participated in the challenge’s Pedal Partner Program, which matches riders with child cancer patients and survivors. As cyclists stopped at a water station in Lakeville, they swung by the Pedal Partner tent, paused for photos, and observed Lego and Play-Doh creations.

The Pan-Mass Challenge has raised $28.5 million this year for patient care and cancer research. The goal is to raise $45 million by October, which would bring the 35-year fund-raising total to a half-billion dollars, organizers said.

Riders, who each commit to raising between $500 and $5,000, can choose from more than a dozen routes that range from short, one-day rides to two-day rides that span almost 200 miles.


“If you don’t get a tear in your eye on this ride, you don’t have a conscience,” said Kevin Beatty, a fifth-year rider who works at MFS Investment Management.

Billy Starr established the Pan-Mass Challenge in 1980. Starr, who has watched the event grow from a bike trip with 35 of his friends into a multimillion-dollar fund-raising event, biked into the Lakeville stop Saturday morning.

“It’s warm, people are smiling,” Starr said. “It’s been a life’s journey.”

Starr’s wife, Meredith Beaton-Starr, who serves as the Pan-Mass’s director of stewardship, said planning the race is a year-round event in her family.

“It’s an amazing thing to see. It just gets bigger and better every year,” she said.

The Pan-Mass Challenge funds some of the more ambitious projects that Dana Farber undertakes, said Jay Bradner, who runs the Bradner lab at Dana-Farber and rode in the event.

Often creative projects, Bradner said, are not fundable through grants, which tend to reward traditional thinking.

“I’m not sure our field knows what the cure for cancer will look like,” Bradner said. “It’s only through bold science that we’re going to gewt there.”

Alison Rush, director of fund-raising and the Pedal Partner coordinator, said the program helps remind riders, in the middle of a long endurance event, about the purpose of their ride. However, cyclists often need little reminders, she said.

Nearly everyone knows someone with cancer, said Rush, whose father and a close friend both suffered from the disease.


“It’s the case that, sadly, everyone is touched by cancer,” Rush said.

Monica Disare can be reached at