By Claire Fogarty | Photos courtesy of Julian Ali and Navid Attayan
Fifth-year senior Navid Attayan set out on his cross-country bike trip on May 25 with one intention: to raise awareness about childhood cancer. But by July 12 — 48 days and 3,058 miles later,—he realized the trip became something else entirely.
“I set out on the journey expecting adventure, to do good and give people hope. But during it, it became somewhat about me,” Attayan says. “It gave life a whole new meaning. I was fighting for something, almost to the point of death … I’ve never been so focused in my entire life.”
And focus was essential to Attayan’s journey, especially since each of the seven states he traveled through (Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Arizona and California) forced him to overcome a different challenge. Virginia had the most hills, Arizona was the hottest and Kansas had the worst head winds and storms. Yet, despite all the physical challenges, Attayan believes the mental challenges were much worse.
“It was like I was being tested every single day,” Attayan says. “Every day was something new, and [I] never knew what to expect.”
But it was the constant challenges throughout his journey from Harrisonburg to San Diego that helped him feel more connected to the children he was fighting for.
“I could never compare what they go through to what I did,” Attayan says. “But I can definitely say I know some of the pain.”
By the end of his trip, Attayan had met countless patients and visited a total of 19 hospitals and treatment centers. At each stop, he’d go door to door visiting the kids and their families, handing out ProJeKT 3000 wristbands, spreading hope and talking to doctors and nurses.
“One thing I realized is that cancer doesn’t just affect the child, it affects the whole family,” Attayan says. “Tears would come running down [the families’] eyes when they saw me. These [patients] are in the hospitals all the time, and not just the kids, their entire family, too. I didn’t think what I was doing was anything extraordinary … I didn’t expect what I saw. ”
What he did know, and was unfortunately reconfirmed, was that hospital funding for cancer is too low. According to the National Institutes of Health, cancer is the leading cause of death in children age 1 to 14. Each year approximately 14,000 children are diagnosed with cancer and a quarter of them will die. Yet federal funding for pediatric cancer research is less than 5 percent of total cancer research funds.
Additionally, the American Cancer Society, leader of Relay for Life, fails to recognize childhood cancers and provides no funding toward it. Attayan says that this year they have refused children from their Hope Lodge, which was a place families could go while they were in the hospital for extended periods of time.
“I was disappointed with what I was told,” Attayan says. “But it did give me a better perspective of what’s out there.”
Post-trip, Attayan’s goal is to raise more money and awareness. In total, he raised approximately $12,500, all of which was donated to cancer research. After arriving in San Diego, he doubled his number of followers on Facebook to 12,000. Additionally, he was featured on 58 TV stations, 97 radio stations and in 123 newspapers nationwide.
“I’m turning the [Facebook] page into more of an awareness campaign,” Attayan says. “I’m taking the role of an advocate and using the fan base to drive serious awareness.”
At the beginning of October, Attayan is teaming up with Phi Alpha Delta for “Flood the Festival Lawn.”
“There will be music, talks by patients and their families and we’ll probably do a march around the Festival Lawn,” Attayan says. “Everyone will come out wearing gold in support of Childhood Cancer Awareness month and the whole event will be kid friendly.”
Aside from being an advocate, Attayan is preparing for his next phase of the project, biking the circumference of the moon; 6,784 miles in 365 days. When he begins the project at the end of September a new donation fund will be opened. Each day he will have to bike about 20 miles, which he wants to symbolize the fight cancer patients have to endure each and every day.
Attayan is also in the process of writing a book, currently titled “The Journey Within,” about a lot of his personal experiences and life lessons learned on the trip, relating it all to childhood cancer.
For example, Attayan recalls biking through one town that warned him about the upcoming town he was scheduled to pass through. They cautioned him to change his route and go a different way, saying the town ahead was dangerous and full of poor people. But Attayan couldn’t change his route and continued on despite the forewarning. When he got to the next town, he was greeted by kind, generous people who gave him much more than they had. They gave him a place to stay, fed him and came together to have a barbecue so they could get to know him.
Attayan says the tale of two towns is only one personal experience he had that showed him how unity and diversity come together for one cause. He says he was raised on the concepts of unity and diversity, but he never fully understood what they meant until his trip. His book will investigate more of his experiences and hopefully motivate others to take action.
“My point is even if cancer isn’t their cause, that’s OK. I want to inspire others to make their own projects try to do good in any way they can,” Attayan says. “If everyone did his or her own little part the world would be better.”