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Pedaling forward: widower honors wife by cycling 100 miles and becoming top fundraiser in LOWVELO22

|    February 28, 2023

Grief looks different for everyone. For Aron Kuch, clipping his feet into the pedals, placing a helmet on his head and settling into the saddle of his bicycle has been part of what’s gotten him through. That and talking about his wife, Heather.

“Heather was gentle ­­– just very kind and considerate and always looking out for the needs of those around her. She was always concerned about how others were feeling and wanted to do her best to make it easy on them,” said Aron. “She had an infectious smile and was always great conversation. That was the first thing that made me look in her direction.”

Heather was diagnosed with cancer in January 2021 and the Kuches knew early on that it was serious. After an initial diagnosis of lung cancer, they came to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and met John Wrangle, M.D., who discovered that it was, instead, thymic cancer, a rare cancer that affects only about 400 people a year in the U.S.

woman standing on a footbridge smiling
Photo provided

 

“Dr. Wrangle was able to recognize the placement of her tumors as befitting thymic cancer instead of the initial diagnosis of lung cancer,” said Aron. “That expertise that you get at Hollings is what helped us to get to a proper diagnosis, into the correct set of care because of the rarity of the cancer.”

Thymic cancer develops in the thymus gland, a small organ in the upper chest that makes white blood cells. It is highly aggressive, metastasizes easily and is often found in the late stages, as patients have atypical symptoms. When diagnosed, Heather’s cancer was stage 4.  

The Kuches spent a lot of time early on looking at the work that had been done over the last decade and found hope in the developments with immunotherapies and targeted treatments. And, if nothing else, they were excited about the idea of research and the scientific community knowing more through Heather’s diagnosis.

man and woman snuggling on steps
Photo provided

“Heather always just had this thought in her mind that if she’s going to have this rare type of cancer, at least people are going to learn from it and be able to treat it better for the next person,” said Aron. “With her cancer being so rare and MUSC being a teaching hospital, on more than a few occasions we got to meet the oncology fellows and she was always excited that they were going to see something they might not see for another number of years.”

Heather fought hard for over a year. Aron remembers how challenging that time was, watching her switch from one treatment to the next and hoping the next one would be effective. By January 2022, they realized that nothing was working. There weren’t any further treatment options. Heather died on March 1, 2022. Aron is still determined to keep her memory alive.

“I’ve just been trying to find different ways to honor her memory and to bring people together to hopefully make the next story different,’’ he said.

Biking for a cause

So, Aron decided to do what he knew how to do ­– what he could physically do to help. That was to hop on a bike, raise money for cancer research and ride in her honor in LOWVELO22. He started out with longer distances between 20 and 30 miles, and by August 2022, he had worked his way up to 60 miles on one ride.

Then he decided to visit family and do some healing in Italy for six weeks. He knew he couldn’t take that much time off if he planned to ride the 100-mile route at LOWVELO in November. So, he rented bicycles and got what was likely some of the most epic training any LOWVELO rider had in 2022. He biked the Amalfi Coast, Milan and Rome, and on what would have been Heather’s and his 18th wedding anniversary in October, Aron biked through Tuscany from Lucca to Siena. He remembers it as a beautiful day that gave him the chance to reflect on beautiful memories.

He was home in Charleston in time for the big ride and with some last-minute support from his family, pushed his fundraising total over $25,000 to become the top fundraiser of all 891 riders.

So, what would Heather think of him riding 100 miles?

“She’d be rolling her eyes,” Aron chuckled.

You see, during their marriage, Aron had not one, but two big cycling crashes that sent him to the emergency room. The first was in 2009 when he was biking with some friends. They showed up at the Kuches house without Aron to drop his car off and let Heather know she needed to go pick him up in the ER. The second crash was on his first time out on a road bike. Heather was in the middle of treatments, so instead of calling her, he called her parents to go pick her up and come to see him in the hospital.

“I think she would definitely be excited about the funds we’ve raised for research and all that. I think she would be excited for me that I’d put in the work and gotten ready and glad about the accomplishment,” Aron said. “But I think she would also be rolling her eyes a little bit that she passes away and the first thing I do is hop back on a bike,” he added with a chuckle.

couple smiling for camera
Photo provided

Angels on the cycling course

Aron chose LOWVELO because of the hope that research had given him and Heather after her diagnosis. He found the aspect of community riding to be a fun and exciting addition and said the added layer of knowing that all of the money raised goes toward cancer research at Hollings was just icing on the cake.

“I ride because research brings new treatments, and new treatments bring hope for that next family that’s going through what we went through.”

He also realizes that what he went through was made a little easier by the people he refers to as angels – the nurses and staff of the HOPE Unit, where Heather spent time during her treatment. HOPE is an acronym for hematologic oncologic protective environment – but it’s also the very thing that the most vulnerable cancer patients are given in this special care unit. 

Photo by Kristin Lee

“They were used to seeing cancer patients. They knew the deal and were just so caring, compassionate, selfless, supportive, serving and all the other great things that you would want in a team,” Aron said. “Hollings reached out to me to support others that might want to participate in LOWVELO and those nurses and techs up on the HOPE Unit just seemed like a great group. I wanted to have those angels come ride with us if they could.”

And they did. Sponsored by the funds Aron raised in his wife’s honor, 21 nurses and staff members from the HOPE Unit joined him in LOWVELO.

Aside from a great medical team, Aron credits the support he had surrounding him at home, too – from Heather’s parents who kept them fed, to her sister and brother-in-law who would drive over from Atlanta to clean the house and help Aron and Heather to work through the tough conversations and also their church family who pitched in when they were needed and gave them space when they weren’t. Aron certainly felt the love from all around him and urges people going through the same thing to lean into their support systems. He also found it helpful to start a blog.

“I think it invited people into our lives and let them be a part of it,” he said. “It was also very therapeutic for me to have to sit down and write out and think through what was actually happening and be able to mentally process it to turn it into words.”

Pedaling forward

In the end, for Aron, cycling has been a reminder through it all that, like his wife, he can do hard things.

“Even now, when I get to those hard times of a ride, the place that really helps me dig down deep is to remember physically how hard it was for her at the time and to kind of put my challenges into perspective and to remember that she kept pushing through and she kept trying and I can do the same.”

He also wore a little reminder through all 100 miles of the ride – Heather’s and his wedding rings strung together on a chain around his neck.

“So they’ll be close to my heart,” he said. “But also close to my thymus.”

Photos by Kristin Lee

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