News & Stories

Stephen Ackley-Ortiz’s Story

March 16, 2018

You’re helping us win the fight against cancer


I was determined to get in shape. But with a demanding new job in New York City, I didn’t get a chance to do much riding.

All through that fall, I had a nagging sore throat. When I finally had it checked out, the doctor sent me straight to a specialist for tests. I still remember exactly how I felt as he reviewed the scans with me. I could feel the blood pumping through my body. There was this loud humming sound in my head, making it hard to hear the words: “throat cancer…squamous cell.”

I walked out of his office in a daze. It was a beautiful day—lots of traffic, people going about their everyday business. I stood motionless, thinking, ‘A year from now, this will all still be going on, but I may not be here on this planet to see it.’

Then, during a diagnostic test to determine the best course of treatment, the doctors discovered a second, completely unrelated cancer in my colon. It was so far-fetched as to be almost unbelievable.

I consulted with doctors from two world-class cancer hospitals, in New York and Baltimore, before deciding to go to Smilow Cancer Hospital. Doctors there had developed a unique, innovative approach that would allow both my cancers to be treated simultaneously, while reducing the chemo and radiation.

It was clearly the best treatment plan, but it was still brutal—an eight-hour surgery, followed by weeks of chemo and 26 daily radiation treatments.

Every day as I arrived at Smilow for my treatment, I saw a poster for the very first Closer to Free Ride. I told myself, ‘I’m going to get better and ride in that Ride.’

I kept the bike inside where I could see it, and when I was completely debilitated from my treatment, I imagined myself on that bike, flying down the road, riding in that Ride.

Just a little over four months after my last treatment, I actually did it—the 25-mile Ride. It was utterly exhausting, but so worth it—it was such an amazing celebration of life, and an opportunity to thank Smilow and help others who were going through the same or worse.

That was in 2011. The next year, I rode the “century” route—the full 100 miles. And I’ve ridden every year I could since then—six out of the seven Rides. I’m completely committed to the other riders, to the survivors, and to the folks at Smilow. The quality of treatment was amazing. To this day, I can’t speak about the amazing nurses without getting choked up.

In 2015, my fifth Closer to Free Ride, I was blown away to receive the Mark Reitsma Courage Award (see article on p. 4 to read about this year’s recipient). It was amazingly emotional to be presented with that award, in that crowd of 1,500 people. But it was even more humbling afterward, when people rode up next to me—people I didn’t know—to say my story was an inspiration to them.

The Ride is so important for those of us who are on the other side of cancer, to remind us of how fortunate we are—but also to remind us that we all still need to help people who are in the middle of their fight. Or in memory of those who have lost their fight.

We want those numbers to be fewer and fewer, until there are none.