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On the Road for Research

Geiger leads a ceremonial ride from the Cancer Center to the Hospital Courtyard.
James Geiger, M.D. leads a ceremonial ride from the Cancer Center to the Hospital Courtyard.

U-M surgeon bikes cross-country in Lance Armstrong's Tour of Hope

James Geiger,M.D., a pediatric surgical oncologist at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, has seen first-hand the impact clinical trials have made to improve pediatric cancer care. But despite the progress made, not enough people appreciate the promise of cancer research. "Much of the success in treating childhood cancers can be directly related to the extensive use of clinical trials.

With greater awareness of the benefits of cancer clinical trials, hopefully more patients will seek participation in appropriate studies," he says.

To do something about that lack of knowledge, Geiger seized a rare opportunity to reach millions with a message of hope. Beginning in late September, he spent nine days cycling across the country to raise awareness for the importance of cancer clinical trials. Selected for a team of 24 from a field of more than 1,100 applicants, Geiger completed the third-annual Bristol-Myers Squibb Tour of Hope, an event featuring seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.

"The Patients are the Heroes"

For Geiger, his pediatric cancer patients and their families provided the motivation to enter the Tour of Hope, and the inspiration to keep going through mile after grueling mile. "Make no mistake, the patients are the heroes in the Tour of Hope," he says. "I have witnessed the incredible courage and positive outlook of children with cancer. Children focus on the present and are resilient, with tremendous hope even in the face of terrible odds.

James Geiger, MD
Above: James Geiger, M.D.
(photo courtesy of www.tourofhope.com)

"My passion has been to help wipe out cancer so no child will have to suffer from or succumb to this disease," says Geiger. That passion fuels Geiger's work, both as a pediatric surgeon and a cancer investigator. His research focuses on immunotherapy, which involves using the body's own immune system to attack cancer cells. With funding from the National Institutes of Health, he recently completed an anti-tumor vaccine clinical trial for the treatment of a form of sarcoma that showed promise with few side effects for patients.

Geiger's family provides personal inspiration, too. His mother is a cancer survivor and now runs the Geiger Cancer Foundation, which was founded by Dr. Geiger's father who lost his own mother to breast cancer when he was only 15. "Losing her had a huge impact on his life," Dr. Geiger says. His wife Mary, daughters Jenny, 17, and Catherine, 13, and son Michael, 11, saw little of him during his preparation. "My participation in the Tour of Hope meant extra work and sacrifices for the whole family, but they were so supportive and patient. Without their help, I could never have taken on the challenge."

The Ride and the Promise

The 3,300-mile Tour of Hope began in San Diego on September 29, following a southern route to reach Washington, D.C. on October 8. Throughout the ride, the two dozen participants -- all of whom have a connection to cancer -- were divided into teams of six, riding relay-fashion for five to six hours per day, allowing the ride to proceed 24 hours a day.

At several points along the route, Armstrong joined the Tour himself. He inspired crowds and led the team and 1,500 additional riders on the final triumphant leg into Washington. The Tour climaxed with Armstrong and the team delivering thousands of "promises," individually signed commitments to learn more about cancer and cancer research.

Many of those promises were collected by Geiger. "Nearly 60 percent of all children with cancer are treated on clinical trials," says Geiger, "and about 75 percent of pediatric cancer patients are cured." But only five percent of adults participate in trials. "If we had more patients participating in trials, new and better therapies would be discovered sooner," he asserts.

The 2005 Tour of Hope team
The 2005 Tour of Hope team
(Geiger is sixth from left)
(photo courtesy of www.tourofhope.com)

A Fearless Leader.
A Remarkable Team.

Lance Armstrong and Bristol-Myers Squibb organized the Tour of Hope in 2003 to raise awareness of of the importance of cancer research. Diagnosed in 1996 with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain, Armstrong was given a 50 percent chance at survival. He beat cancer and returned to professional cycling two years later to become the most successful athlete in the history of the sport.

Geiger and Fisher sisters
Geiger speaks with melanoma survivor Hannah Fisher and her sister Justine at his "sendoff" event in the University Hospital Courtyard.

While his cycling accomplishments may never be topped, Armstrong considers his greatest achievement to be surviving cancer.“ Hopefully,” he recently stated, “in 20 years I’ll be remembered as much for being a cancer survivor as a cyclist.” Said Geiger about the Tour’s superstar,“We couldn’t ask for a better advocate for cancer research than Lance Armstrong. His story epitomizes what’s possible. I don’t think people realize what Lance means to cancer patients. Even if they have no experience with cycling, his example inspires them to survive – and thrive. Whether he’s inspiring cancer patients or lobbying Washington for more research funding, he shows us all the power of getting involved to make a difference."

Geiger heaps equal praise on his Tour of Hope teammates and coaches. "I'm so fortunate to have met and worked with such an outstanding group," he says. "Our team includes survivors, caregivers, advocates, health professionals and researchers, each chosen for their unique experience with cancer, not just their ability to endure the Tour of Hope. It's been an honor to ride with them."

Preparing to Ride

A demanding sixteen-week training course, developed by Armstrong's trainer Chris Carmichael and implemented by his team of expert coaches, preceded the Tour. To Geiger, the experience was similar to what patients go through during cancer treatment. "I was surrounded by professionals concerned with every aspect of my fitness and well being -- experts in nutrition, physiology, psychology, strength and endurance training. It reminded me of the multidisciplinary care we provide our patients to make sure they're completely ready for the challenge they're facing."

Geiger, who lives in Toledo, is the first person from either Michigan or Ohio to be named to a Tour of Hope team. As a sendoff, the U-M Cancer Center held a Tour of Hope rally on September 14, highlighted by a one-mile ceremonial bike ride from the Cancer Center to C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. For the patients and families in attendance, spending time with Geiger provided inspiration they could relate to. "He and I talked about our love of cycling," commented one patient recovering from a bone marrow transplant. "I told him this time next year, I hope to be back on the bike."

Lance Armstrong
Seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstong
(photo courtesy of www.tourofhope.com)

Research Makes the Difference

Lance Armstrong credits with saving his life those who came before him and participated in cancer research. "Quite simply, I'm alive today due to the fact that someone long before me participated in a clinical trial," he says. "Clinical trials really do offer hope and pave the way for many more cancer survivors in the future."

Geiger concurs. "We are curing more and more cancer patients each day. If we keep investing in clinical trials and encouraging people to participate, we will see people live with cancer instead of dying from it."

For information about clinical trials at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center, call the Cancer AnswerLine™ at 800-865-1125. To learn more about the Tour of Hope, visit www.tourofhope.org.

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