(Photography by Kevin Van Paassen)
When Toronto business owner Rael Herman turned 50 last year, his wife, Andrea Shugar, went all out with a gift to mark the occasion. She visited a high-end cycling shop and bought a “dream” customized bike that she knew Rael, an accomplished cyclist, would love.
With its baby blue frame, electronic shifters and disc brakes, the bike was a huge hit.
Beyond its smooth ride and state-of-the-art lines, the bike was a crown jewel in Rael’s history with the sport. When he was first diagnosed with brain cancer at age 35, he took up cycling in order to improve his physical and mental recovery from chemotherapy. He often participated in charity rides to raise funds for cancer research. Over time, cycling would become a passionate hobby – one that he loved to share with his family.
“Throughout the summer, we had the opportunity to cycle together [all over],” Andrea recalls. They toured through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes – the Kawarthas and Haliburton Highlands in Ontario, the Laurentians in Quebec.
Sadly, the couple’s enjoyment was brief. Rael had been diagnosed with a brain tumour again earlier that year. By the end of the summer, the tumour was no longer responding to treatment and he was unable to ride. In March 2019, he died of brain cancer.
First diagnosed in 2004, Rael responded well to a year of initial treatment and was able to live a full, happy life in remission. Thirteen years later, a routine MRI revealed that Rael’s cancer had returned, this time as glioblastoma. This is an aggressive, incurable form of brain cancer that is difficult to treat because the tumours are inherently resistant to radiation and chemotherapy.
“One day, about a month before he passed away, [Rael] asked me to put his bike components onto my frame, so that he could continue riding with me even after he was gone. I promised him that I would,” Andrea says.
On June 23, Andrea brought their bike to the second annual Rael’s Ride, a fundraiser to support brain cancer research at Sunnybrook. Andrea was joined by her two children, Rael’s siblings, parents, nieces, nephews, cousins, friends and hundreds of people who signed up to ride in Rael’s honour.
The ride includes 10-kilometre, 25-kilometre and 60-kilometre circuits, starting at the North Thornhill Community Centre and ending with a kosher lunch at the finish line. The goal is to help fund research trials run by Dr. Arjun Sahgal, a scientist and radiation oncologist at Sunnybrook.
The trials involve the MR-Linac, the world’s first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine that uses real-time guidance to allow surgeons to both precisely target and monitor the tumour’s response to radiation. Dr. Sahgal says the MR-Linac may offer patients with the most complicated tumours a better outcome than more traditional therapies.
Dr. Sahgal had treated Rael with another experimental and aggressive program in 2018 after treatment elsewhere stopped working.
“We were able to control the cancer for longer and extend Rael’s life. He had a dramatic improvement [with] the treatment,” he says.
Rael’s family hopes the $70,000 raised to date through their fundraiser can accelerate Dr. Sahgal’s experimental trials and someday propel the technology into wide use around the world.
The impetus for Rael’s Ride began after a family friend, Lauragaye Jackson, learned just how underfunded brain cancer research remains. On the night Rael shared the news that he was no longer in remission, her first reaction was one of hopeful optimism.
“I said to Rael, ‘Technology has come so far in 13 years and I’m sure your experience this time round will be so much better,’” Lauragaye recalls. “He said to me, ‘Lauragaye, nothing’s improved.’”
Rael’s response stunned Lauragaye. “It was driving me crazy that he said nothing had changed,” she says. “I’m an ideas person, so I kept thinking, We have to do something about this.”
Lauragaye suggested a sponsored bike ride, a fitting tribute to Rael’s passion for the sport and something that would amplify the fundraising he’d already done over the years.
His family agreed. Rael and Andrea’s daughter, Gabi Herman, says cycling became central to her dad’s life as he coped with his medical reality.
“My dad felt that with every pedal, he was helping his body get rid of the cancer cells and the toxins from the chemo,” Gabi says.
When Lauragaye told Rael about her plans to mount the event, he burst into tears. “He said to me, ‘In a million years I never thought someone would do something like that for me,’” she recalls. “‘I’m just a regular guy, not an important person.’”
Gabi says that couldn’t have been further from the truth. She describes her father as someone so people-focused and giving that he spent his years in remission attending brain cancer support groups, so he could provide comfort to those recently diagnosed. In 2018, during the first Rael’s Ride, 300 people turned up to support him as he biked the course.
Gabi remembers that first ride as a joyous occasion.
“Nobody wants to have a ride that’s raising money for cancer because their dad has cancer,” Gabi says. “But to be honest, we were all pretty excited about the event. And when I heard my dad was crossing the finish line, I felt a deep gratitude to see him being active and enjoying life.”
This year, even though Rael was not there to see what his memory continues to inspire, there’s no doubt his presence was felt.
“I know Rael [is] with me in spirit, cheering me on and encouraging me to keep pushing, even when I think I can no longer do so,” says Andrea of riding their special bike at the event.
“Rael was tenacious and patient and never gave up. That is how he lived his life and rode his bike. He inspires me to do the same.”