Isabella de la Houssaye had always dreamed about biking across the United States. She thought it would be a wonderful way to soak up the beauty of our country and appreciate the diversity of states and people along the way.
That dream, however, felt out of reach after she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in January 2018. Prior to her diagnosis, she didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, and lived a healthy and active lifestyle. In fact, a few months before her diagnosis, Isabella’s primary care doctor told her she was “the picture of health.” After experiencing some back pain and mild dizziness, she was shocked to learn she had lung cancer that had already spread from her lungs into her pelvis, spine, brain, sternum, and adrenal gland.
At first, Isabella was overwhelmed with sadness and a sense of loss. Her body was quickly shutting down as it was overtaken by the cancer; she even had difficulties walking. She had a tremendous fear of what her death would mean for her children and her husband. No matter how much she tried to find the silver lining, it eluded her.
With the loving support of family, friends and community, Isabella was able to see the light after a few weeks and begin to find joy again. This was the first and probably most difficult step in her cancer journey—letting go of the sadness and suffering brought on by focusing on what she had lost and replacing it with being grateful for all that she still had: her family, friends, and positive attitude.
Isabella was surprised to find how kind and supportive people were. She notes: “The words ‘stage IV’ bring out the best in people.” As her community blossomed, her positive outlook grew, and her cancer stabilized, she set about rebuilding her body. Isabella encourages others to “focus on what cancer cannot take away from you and remember, you are not a statistic.” It was baby steps at first, but little by little, she was able to walk again and after a few months managed to run again.
Even though she knew she could probably ride a bike again, she was terrified of the possibility of falling and breaking her fragile body. It took a while for her to get over that fear, but about 7 months following her diagnosis, she got back outside on her bike. With a lot of training and perseverance, Isabella managed to complete an Ironman in the fall of 2018 and has been trying to maintain as much fitness as possible since.
She feels blessed with access to outstanding medical care and the targeted chemotherapy she takes daily that has, for the most part, kept the cancer from progressing. She has a brain MRI and a CT scan every 8 weeks to check for progression and is doing her best to make good use of the time that she has while she has it.
Isabella dips her bike into the Pacific Ocean at the start of her cross-country bike ride
(Image by Eduardo Contreras via The San Diego Union-Tribune)
Isabella has decided to ride her bike across the United States from San Diego, California to Jacksonville, Florida to raise awareness for lung cancer and advocate for more comprehensive screening and more research on treatment options.
“Prior to cancer,” Isabella says, “I knew that if I trained properly, my body would respond and I would get stronger. This equation doesn't really work for me now. I know this ride will not be easy for me, but it is important to do.”
Isabella is still excited for the prospect of the beautiful scenery along the way and the people and places she will see, but she is primarily driven to embrace this challenge by her desire to raise awareness for lung cancer and connect with fellow cancer patients and survivors along her route. She hopes future generations will benefit from both early diagnostics and treatment that will make lung cancer a chronic illness rather than a terminal disease.
Isabella says: “Whereas I used to dream about my ride across America and other such pursuits, now I dream of a day when lung cancer screenings are available at annual checkups, targeted therapies and immunotherapies make lung cancer curable or at least a chronic disease, and people who do have to face these obstacles have the ability to face them without losing the ability to find joy in life.”
You can follow Isabella’s journey at bikebreathebelieve.org. We look forward to hearing more from her at the end of her cross-country ride.