Annual bike race helps raise awareness of women’s health

Monday, May 7, 2018 - 16:50
  • Charlotte Estes rounds a corner at the Bike for Women on Sunday, May 6, 2018 in Chugiak. (Photo by Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)
  • Johnna Kohl rides on Birchwood Loop during the Alaska Bike for Women on Sunday, May 6, 2018 in Chugiak. (Photo by Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)
  • Star photo by Matt Tunseth
  • A competitor in the Alaska Bike for Women passes a row of mailboxes alongside Bircwhood Loop in Chugiak on Sunday, May 6, 2018. (Photo by Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)
  • Kelley Jansen rides along Birchwood Loop during the Alaska Bike for Women on Sunday, May 6, 2018 in Chugiak. (Photo by Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)
  • Kari Brookover smiles as she rides in the Alaska Bike for Women on Sunday, May 6, 2018 in Chugiak. (Photo by Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)
  • Talia Smith, left, and Linda Smith ride on Birchwood Loop during the Alaska Bike for Women on Sunday, May 6, 2018 in Chugiak. (Photo by Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)
  • Trudy Keller rides on Birchwood Loop during the Alaska Bike for Women on Sunday, May 6, 2018 in Chugiak. (Photo by Matt Tunseth/Alaska Star)

A partnership between one of Alaska’s most well-known cycling events and an Anchorage nonprofit is getting the conversation rolling about gynecologic cancers.

“We want to open conversations,” said Ali Tolman, program director for Let Every Woman Know Alaska.

For the past four years, the group has partnered with the Bike for Women, which Sunday held its 17th annual bicycle race on the zig-zaggy two-lane blacktop of Birchwood Loop in Chugiak. It’s a partnership that has raised thousands of dollars for the tiny nonprofit (Tolman is the group’s only paid employee) while increasing awareness of what she said is an often taboo subject.

According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 32,000 women in the U.S. will die in 2018 gynecologic cancer — including ovarian, cervical, endometrial, vaginal and vulvar. By comparison, an estimated 41,000 women are expected to die of breast cancer this year, according to breastcancer.org.

But while breast cancer awareness has gone mainstream, Tolman said that’s not the case with gynecologic cancers.

“There’s a stigma, a shame and a silence that is actually killing people,” she said.

Tolman said her group wants to change that by getting women to talk more openly about their health.

“We call it ‘down there’ aware,” she said.

Paying attention to gynecologic issues is crucial because Tolman said the survival rate “skyrockets” when cancers are found and treated early.

“Early detection saves lives,” said Tolman, who joined a small group of volunteers at an information table set up in the parking lot of Chugiak High Sunday.

The group handed out pamphlets with a list of symptoms that could signal gynecologic cancer. Among them:

* Abnormal vaginal bleeding or discharge

* Feeling full too quickly or difficulty eating

* More frequent or urgent need to urinate and/or constipation

* Bloating

* Abdominal or back pain

* Itching, burning, pain or tenderness of the vulva

* Changes in vulva color or skin, such as a rash, sores or warts

None of the symptoms necessarily mean a woman has cancer; but according to the CDC, if any of them persist for more than two weeks a woman should see a doctor. Tolman said women who would otherwise not hesitate to seek medical attention for a sick child or family member will often ignore symptoms in themselves until it’s too late.

“It’s just important to listen to yourself when you think something is wrong,” she said.

Bike for Women co-director Kristin Folmar said the joint effort between the race and the nonprofit has been a natural fit.

“It’s been a really great partnership,” she said.

Tolman agreed. In the four years since the nonprofit has appeared at the race, awareness appears to be on the rise.

“People are starting to recognize us,” Tolman said.

To support the group, the race donates $3 from every entry to the group. This year the race also raised an additional $1,500 through 15 special charity openings — which sold out in just eight minutes.

Out on the roads Sunday, hundreds of riders ranging from smiling to super serious were greeted by partly sunny skies and gusty winds that helped cyclists on the first half of the 9-mile, out-and-back course along Birchwood Loop and hurt them on the way back. Results were not immediately available, but Folmar said a total of 771 riders signed up for the event.

The event is an annual favorite on the springtime cycling circuit, with multiple generations of women racing together. This year’s competitors included riders in age groups ranging from 5-9 to 80-84.

For more information or to see complete results once they’re posted, visit bike4women.com. For more information about Let Every Woman Know, visit leteverywomanknow.org.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or 257-4274

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