South Charlotte

Fighting rare cancer with extreme exercise

"I can't control the fact that I have adenoid cystic carcinoma," Gerald Babao said. "I can't control that this rare, slow-growth cancer has a propensity for coming back with vengeance. And I can't control the fear that I will leave my young daughter and wife without a father and husband. The only thing I can control is making sure that I'm as healthy as I can be and living an active lifestyle." Babao was only 33 when he was diagnosed with Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC), a rare head and neck cancer, in 2008.

Babao was a healthy and active young father of a 1-year old, so cancer was the last thing on his mind when he began coming down with what he thought was the flu.

Babao, his wife Christy and daughter Isabella had just moved to south Charlotte from the Washington, D.C., area when he began feeling ill. He put off going to the doctor for weeks and only succumbed to visiting his primary care physician when his nagging cough and fatigue hampered his annual backpacking trip. .

The doctor reassured him that it was probably just a virus, but ordered a biopsy after a physical revealed what appeared to be a swollen lymph node on the side of his neck.

"I'll never forget the moment when the doctor told me I had cancer," Babao said. "When my wife and I went to my doctor's office, we were only worried about how quickly we could get out of there so we could start our beach vacation. We had no idea our lives would be changed forever."

Babao admits that when he looks back, he can see the signs that he ignored. He had a lump on the side of his head and neck area that sent shooting pains through his body. He also had the symptoms of a cold.

Babao spent the summer at Duke Cancer Institute undergoing treatment, while his wife stayed in their south Charlotte home trying to keep change to a minimum for their young daughter.

"To this day Isabella thinks that I was just away on a long business trip," Babao said.

It was while he was at Duke University that he purchased his first road bike. Babao's self-proclaimed obsession with Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France prompted him to buy a bike.

Babao grew up playing baseball and stayed active by backpacking, but he loathed going to the gym and was never consistent with a workout routine. That all changed when he purchased his first road bike and joined a cycling group.

He aligned himself with cycling professionals, even forming friendships with those well-known in the industry, including Spencer Lueders, founder of 24 Hours of Booty, the "Official 24-Hour Cycling Event of Livestrong." As Babao began taking charge of his health, something interesting happened: his friends, co-workers and family joined him. Many of his friends became inspired by his transformation and purchased their own bikes.

"An inspiration?" Babao said, as if he had never contemplated that his journey would inspire others. "It feels good when someone I know picks up cycling, swimming or running because of me. In some ways it sucks that it took cancer to inspire my friends and me to be active, but I'm also grateful."

As Babao immersed himself in the cycling culture, he found himself pulling together group rides and encouraging his friends. .

Babao inspired his friends to compete in the Livestrong Challenge. He formed a team of nine cycling newbies, calling themselves Wannabe Riders, and set out to ride 75 miles through Pennsylvania.

The team gained momentum and grew to 25 members over the year.

Babao decided to take it up a notch and begin training for a triathlon.

"I signed up for the Tri! Ballantyne YMCA triathlon training group, and it changed my life. I not only learned how to swim and completed my first triathlon, but I made friendships that will last a lifetime. "

Since completing the Tri! Ballantyne sprint triathlon in July 2010, Babao has gone on to compete in Olympic and Half Ironman triathlon events. As Babao began competing in triathlon events, he found himself literally "TRIing" to fight cancer.

After raising more than $50,000 for the Livestrong foundation, Babao decided it was time to take the same fundraising dedication and direct it toward a cure for adenoid cystic carcinoma.

Adenoid cystic carcinoma is such a rare cancer that there isn't a large foundation to raise money or awareness.

Babao decided to launch his own effort to raise money for research. He created the Wannabe Cancer Free of ACC 5K and Fun Run race, which will be held in November in the south Charlotte area. All proceeds will benefit the ACC Foundation.

The Wannabe Cancer Free of ACC 5K and Fun Run will be the last race of the season in the ERACE Away Cancer Race Series in Charlotte.

What's next ? Babao plans to compete in a Half Ironman Triathlon in May, and run his first "official" half marathon this March with his "Wannabe Runner" buddies.

Babao recognizes that with adenoid cystic carcinoma, it is only a matter of time before it returns.

"All I can do is be as healthy as I can and perhaps prolong the cancer from coming back and metastasizing. In the meantime, I'm not sitting around waiting. I plan to continue to be active and push myself to be as healthy and active as I can be."