On the surface, Stacey Olynyk appears built for road bike distance riding.
Young, fit and healthy looking, with a beaming smile that does little to hide her positive attitude, the 25-year-old Victoria woman seems well-prepared to take part in the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer from Vancouver to Seattle in June.
It wasn’t always that way.
Two years ago, Olynyk and her twin sister, Karen rushed to be with family in Saskatchewan when their father died suddenly. While there, Stacey encountered an itchiness all over her body that she couldn’t explain.
Tests later showed she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue that can also present such symptoms as swollen glands, night sweats, fever, loss of appetite and unexplained weight loss.
Having put on hold thoughts of riding in the cancer fundraiser and still grieving the loss of her father, Olynyk put all her energy into battling her own cancer. Her best friend, Karen, was there every step of the way.
By mid-2012, Stacey was declared cancer free and rekindled her desire to ride with Team Spaghetti Factory, led by former boss and restaurant owner Mike Gonzalez.
But there was another potential hitch to the plan.
Last fall, Karen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and embarked on an aggressive treatment regimen of her own.
Stacey, in classes at Camosun College, could have put the ride on hold again. After much soul-searching, she sent Gonzalez and her teammates a simple text message: “Let’s do this!”
Stacey’s goals are simple: “I want to be able to raise money for cancer research and to help my sister. Riding now creates a whole new perspective on things.”
In an Oak Bay Avenue café with her teammates, she spoke of her surprise at the outpouring of support since she and her sister took their stories public. Not only has Olynyk received well wishes and donations from friends and former co-workers with whom she had lost touch, last month Oak Bay Bikes gave her a Specialized road bike.
“I’ve just been amazed at the humanity of people,” she said.
Gonzalez said the plan to do the ride in 2012 started as a way to keep a promise to Olynyk, to raise a little bit of awareness about cancer research and to help out Karen with expenses while she is undergoing treatment.
“No one expected to get the type of response that we’ve received,” he said.
Not only have Victoria media taken the story and run with it, Gonzalez has heard from Spaghetti Factory alumni around the world through the team’s Facebook page and website.
“Working at the Spaghetti Factory, with the friendships and relationships you develop, you don’t get that just anywhere,” Stacey said.
Team rider Jill-Marie Moreau, who currently works at the restaurant along with teammate Charlene Love, said there’s plenty of buzz about their efforts and the story of the twins.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” she said. “And everyone is so inspired by Stacey.”
That level of support shocks Olynyk.
“I never thought that I could be an inspiration,” she said. She stopped for a moment to remember her own inspiration to get better and stay healthy, pro triathlete Laurel Wassner of New York City, who beat Hodgkin’s and now campaigns for cancer awareness with twin sister and fellow triathlete, Rebeccah.
“So many people have a connection to cancer,” said Love. “They have very personal reasons for wanting to donate.”
As of Thursday the team had raised more than $6,200 toward its goal of $15,000 with more than four months to go. A separate fund, to help with expenses for Karen while she is undergoing treatment, is also available on the team’s website and has so far brought in more than $600.