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July 27, 2010
Jack O'Riordan: For PMC riders, survivor is a sign of life

Photo gallery: Jack through the years at the PMC

Jack O'Riordan at the 2009 Pan-Massachusetts Challenge

Jack O'Riordan, left, at the 2009 Pan-Massachusetts Challenge

Just as they have come to anticipate the grueling hills of Truro and the majesty of the Bourne Bridge, veteran Pan-Massachusetts Challenge® (PMC) cyclists are always on the lookout for Jack O'Riordan.

The young cancer survivor, who volunteers at the bike-a-thon's Nickerson State Park water stop on Cape Cod, has become an annual source of motivation for many of those pedaling up to 190 miles to benefit research and patient care at Dana-Farber.

"I'm 14, thanks to you," O'Riordan's homemade sign will declare this summer, the 12th straight year that the Brewster, Mass., resident has made one to salute PMC riders.

Diagnosed with Wilms' Tumor (a pediatric kidney cancer) when he was 1, O'Riordan had a kidney removed and metastases to his lungs three months later that required him to undergo 30 months of chemotherapy and radiation at Dana-Farber before kindergarten.

He made his first signs — with his mom's help — noting his age and appreciation while still a toddler in treatment, and has been cancer-free and updating his message ever since.

"Riders used to bend down and pat me on the head, but now most of them have to reach up," says O'Riordan, who is nearly 6 feet tall and played high school football last year. "A lot of people take pictures with me, and say I inspire them. It's very cool."

Next month, as always, there will be plenty of riders for him to greet with a handshake, water, and the necklaces his family makes for them as they take a breather before the last 50-odd miles of their journey.

Thousands of cyclists will traverse one- or two-day routes from Sturbridge to Provincetown in this year's 31st annual PMC on Aug. 7–8, and thousands like O'Riordan will support their effort as volunteers. The world's largest and most successful athletic fundraiser, the PMC has raised more than $270 million for Dana-Farber since its 1980 inception.

The O'Riordan family were part of this effort long before Jack's diagnosis. Four generations of the clan now help coordinate the Nickerson water stop, which Jack's grandfather started back in the '80s. Jack's parents, Chris and John, have ridden the full 190-mile route four times, and his younger siblings Charlie and Kate work right alongside him.

It's the poster boy, however, who makes the biggest impression.

"When Jack was 4, there was one rider who had fallen twice and was ready to give up by the time he got to our water stop," remembers Chris O'Riordan. "Then he came around the corner and saw Jack and his sign, and he got right back on his bike. That's when I realized there was something special at work here."

All these years later, it's still working. Jack O'Riordan continues receiving letters from riders thanking him for lifting their spirits, some of which include photos they've taken with him.

Jack displays several of them on his bedroom wall.

"Seeing Jack, and seeing his sign change every year as his number goes up, is a powerful reminder that what we do on the ride is having a real impact on people's lives," says Warren Green, gearing up for his nineteenth PMC.

And next year when he's 15 — the minimum age required to ride in the PMC — Jack O'Riordan plans to make his impact on a bike.

— Saul Wisnia
Saul_Wisnia@dfci.harvard.edu