By VICTORIA HILLS ’14
Co-Editor in Chief
For four years, Shawna Kleftis ’14 watched cancer consume her brother. Just two years older than his little sister, Cullen Kleftis was 15 when a tumor in his knee was diagnosed as osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer. He died at age 19.
Kleftis knows her fast-approaching graduation will be a difficult time—partly because Cullen won’t be there to cheer her on, but also because her brother never got the chance to graduate college himself. While the majority of her classmates scatter across the globe, transitioning into jobs and travel adventures, Kleftis will head to Baltimore to begin a 70-day, 4,000-mile cross-country bike ride for cancer.
“I’m doing the bike ride for my brother, in memory of him,” Kleftis said. She describes cancer as “a big beast to handle” but, despite all that the disease has robbed her of, she remains optimistic about her ability to make a difference.
Kleftis and 29 other young adults aged 18 to 25 will bike from Baltimore to San Diego with 4K for Cancer, an offshoot of the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults that is dedicated to rallying communities across the country to the battle against cancer. Each rider is required to raise $4,500 by June 1, but Kleftis has her sights set higher: $11,111.11.
“That [number] has personal significance,” Kleftis said. “My brother was a hockey player, and his whole life he was always number 11 because when he was a little boy he was obsessed with this NHL player who was number 11. And then he passed away on October 11th—so the number just keeps on reappearing … I’m aiming high, but I’m hoping.”
In memory of her brother, Kleftis wears a Wellesley hockey team jersey that bears the number 11.
Kleftis is more daunted by the fundraising than by physically preparing for 70 days of cross-country biking. She expects that the first week on the road will be tough, as her body adapts to biking 60 miles a day, but watching her brother struggle with cancer has long since instilled a serious commitment to physical fitness and being healthy. Instead of biking, she centers most of her workouts on running and lifting, as she prepares to run the Boston Marathon in the spring.
“My brain right now can’t really comprehend the 4,000—it’s just such a big number to me,” Kleftis said. “But I’m mostly excited. I think once I get closer I’ll be a little nervous.” For now, she’s a bit apprehensive about tackling the southernmost route—which will take her through Texas in July—in the dead of summer.
But despite her love of pushing her physical limits, Kleftis doesn’t consider the 4,000 miles of biking the most exciting aspect of 4K for Cancer. The program also has a substantial community service and education element, which involves frequent stops to host talks about the impact of cancer on young adults. The riders also stop at hospitals to visit pediatric cancer patients.
“We’ll bring in just sort of care packages and conversation—something to brighten up the day and brighten up the monotony of being in a hospital for weeks on end,” Kleftis said. “I think that’ll be the best part. I know my brother appreciated any sort of change other than sitting in his bed.”
You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t known a friend or family member with cancer. Besides the tragic loss of her brother, the disease’s omnipresence is Kleftis’s greatest motivation for participating in 4K for Cancer. “I think it’s a cool way before I actually delve into real life to give back, and to take that time to help other people that I care deeply about,” Kleftis said.
As of today, Kleftis has raised $247. Although donations have varied, a few have been for $11. You can visit her 4K for Cancer profile page to read more about the ride or make a donation here.
Victoria is a senior studying biology and history. Follow her on Twitter @HillsVictoriaM.