College grad survives cancer and rides her bike across the country to raise awareness

A young woman from Houston is on the ride of her life across the country, biking to raise awareness and money to fight cancer. She joined forces with a non-profit organization called Texas 4000, in hopes of sparing others from what she went through as a teenager.

Lilian Velez is getting unique views of the U.S., from the seat of her bike, on the longest annual charity bicycle ride in the world. It's usually from Austin to Alaska, but the Canadian border is closed due to COVID-19, so they're taking a new route.

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"The Ozarks route started in Austin, and then did a big circle around the U.S. So it went to Houston, through Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Illinois, and then we crossed through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and now we're in Arizona. Then we have New Mexico and Oklahoma and then back to Texas," explains Lilian.

Through these 15 states, she's raising awareness and funds to fight cancer, after she was surprisingly diagnosed with a type of cancer more known for striking adults.

"I was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer when I was 13, so it was at the very end of eighth grade, and I had a tumor that was about the size of a basketball. So it was pretty big and my mom was the one that initially noticed," says Lilian.

Lilian's Oncologist from Texas Children's Hospital explains the serious situation.

"It's actually pretty complicated, because that area of the body, it can spread to the intestines, it can spread to the wall around the intestines, and of course the fold into the uterus. So they have to do biopsies of all these different places and then they remove the whole mass, and then, thankfully, her type is very curable, even if it's more of an advanced stage, so I gave her four cycles of chemo, which would be about 12 weeks," says Dr. Parth Mehta, Hematologist/Oncologist with Texas Children's Cancer Center.  

It worked! Lilian is cured. Years ago, her interest was sparked in "biking for a cause" at a special camp through Texas Children's Hospital. 

"There was a past Texas 4000 rider who came and gave a presentation about his summer bike ride. I think I was maybe 15 or 16 at the time, and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever," exclaims Lilian. 

She would go on to join that group, while a student at UT Austin. She recently graduated and spent the last year there training to prepare for this summer of major milestones on her bike.

"I also focused on eating the right foods to be able to have the energy and getting enough sleep and doing all that, but it was a lot of juggling for sure because I've never physically exerted myself this much," states Lilian. 

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Her Texas 4000 team includes almost 100 students. They split up on four different tours and will soon all meet up on their adventure. She typically bikes all day, six days a week at a time, rests one day, and then hits the highway again. Each day starts out in a special dedication circle.

"We say what we're thankful for first, what we're grateful for that day, and then we through our ride dedications which is dedicating our different rides to different people who have experienced cancer or family, friends, people who were ill. Just kind of like being able to dedicate what we do for other people is what I think keeps us going," smiles Lilian. They also hold programs about cancer awareness in different communities along the way.

She says it has been a beautiful journey so far.

"We got to go to Yellowstone, Grand Tetons and bike through all that which was a dream. It was really, really cool. Even Utah and Arizona, being able to bike through the mountains, after I biked through cornfields for a very long time. National parks and national forests and all this natural beauty and climbing mountains, it's been really rewarding," says Lilian.

Her doctor couldn't be more proud of how far she's come.

"I have taken care of kids now with cancer for about 20 years. It's always inspirational and extraordinary when a kid faces and overcomes cancer, but then to have her do something like this, which is so far above and beyond. Having faced such a hard challenge in life, at such a young age and, for her - she was an adolescent, and we all know that adolescence is a challenge unto itself. I think that being able to see that there's something ahead, there's a future, is really important," states Dr. Mehta. He also gives two thumbs-up on all the exercise she's getting!

Lilian is about to wrap up her 70 days of riding for her experience of a lifetime. We're cheering her on! She arrives here on August 13.

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