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June 7, 2009

Teens train for 100-mile ride to fight blood cancers

By Pam DeFiglio


Matt Bufalino would like to swat his alarm clock when it rings at 6 a.m. on Saturdays. But the 17-year-old knows that if he can drag himself down to his dad Sebastian Bufalino’s car and climb in, he can make a difference in helping cancer patients survive.

Matt, Sebastian and three of Matt’s friends have spent every Saturday since March driving from their Buffalo Grove homes to meet their cycling team, hop on their bikes and train for the 100-mile Leukemia & Lymphoma Society cycling fundraiser they’ll tackle June 7 in Lake Tahoe, Calif. Each has raised more than $4,000 in funds for research to combat these fatal diseases.

When the Bufalinos arrive at Saturday practices, they join the 75 or so other Chicago-area cyclists training for the event in a “mission moment” dedicated to the cancer patients they’re riding for. On one recent Saturday a fellow cyclist told of his struggles with lymphoma.

“I found it really inspiring,” Matt Bufalino said, adding these moments help him keep going when the cycling gets tough.

And it does get tough. The team started training in the frigid weather of early March with a 15-mile ride, then added five miles a week to practices, topping out with an 80-mile ride two weeks before the 100-mile event. The practices are held in various locations throughout the suburbs.

“You get tired, but you build your strength each week, said Connor Cummings, 17. He, Matt Bufalino and two other teens in the cycling event, Tyler Goerth and Kevin Campbell, attended St. Mary’s School in Buffalo Grove.

Reaching the finish line

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program provides coaching to help all the cyclists condition their muscles and go the distance.

Sebastian, who has done the ride five times over the course of the past 10 years, serves as an informal mentor for the teens who say doing it with friends from elementary school makes it a lot easier.

In addition to conditioning their muscles, the cyclists have also put a lot of effort into raising the minimum $4,200 in donations required to participate in the event.

Sebastian Bufalino wrote letters asking for donations. Matt Bufalino asked classmates at Carmel High School to buy miles for $5 each. Cummings and his father played Irish music at a St. Patrick’s Day party and found $700 in their donation box.

They are all hoping that money will provide breakthroughs for people battling blood cancers, whom the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society calls “patient heroes.” While many volunteer cyclists ride in honor of a loved one with these diseases, the Bufalinos and friends didn’t count any sufferers among their close friends or family.

Before Sebastian started volunteering 10 years ago, he saw an ad asking for cyclists. The memories of a college friend and a neighbor’s child who died from blood cancers motivated him to sign up.

Since then, he has met many patients. One gave him a personal tour of the oncology ward at Rush University Hospital, where the patient underwent a bone marrow transplant

A family tradition

The cycling event has become a family tradition for the Bufalinos. Sebastian’s wife, sister and daughter Cristina, now 20, have all done it at least once.

“In my family it’s like a rite of passage almost, so I wanted to try it for myself,” says Matt.

Sebastian, 48, still thinks about the neighbor’s child who died from blood cancer back when he was a teenager. The girl was diagnosed at age 4 and died within 24 months.

“Today she’d probably live into her 20s or 30s, if not longer, due to the improvement in treatments. It was so devastating for the family,” he said.