Q and A: Cancer Recovery and My Bicycle Design

Q&A with Emily Gresh


Emily Gresh wears many hats—Trinity alumna, Yale graduate school alumna, dancer, writer, mother, fund-raising professional, and most recently, cancer survivor and the creator of the winning design for Giant Bicycles limited edition bicycle, the Liv/giant ‘Avail Inspire.’  Following an eight year career as a professional ballet dancer at Boston Ballet where she rose to the rank of soloist, Gresh came to Trinity as an IDP student where she earned an undergraduate degree in English and a minor in sociology.  From there, she completed a master’s degree in Theater Management at Yale University before entering the workforce in a new field, when she returned to Trinity to serve as the College’s Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations in the Advancement Division.  Most recently, Gresh found the brighter side of a diagnosis of breast cancer, at age 39.  We sat down with Gresh, to hear more about how she designed the bicycle, its inspirational theme, and her experience as a young survivor of cancer.
TC: When you were diagnosed, how did you handle the news, emotionally and physically?
EG: There is truly no way to prepare for the news that you have cancer, especially when you feel you are young and healthy and still outside of the reach of that kind of devastating illness.  When I was sitting in the doctor’s office at Yale-New Haven Hospital where I was diagnosed and treated, my ears literally closed and I stopped hearing.  I did not want to take in that news.  It took time to fully absorb it, many days and weeks, and was unbelievably difficult.  I had just turned 39.  Most women haven’t even had their first mammogram at age 39 and there I was already being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.  Fortunately, I went home and went online and within a few days found the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) website which helped me enormously.
TC: What was the most important way that this group helped you?
EG: When I found the Young Survival Coalition online, I saw photos of young women participating in the Tour de Pink —a three day, two hundred mile bicycle ride that benefits YSC—and it was like looking into the eyes of people like me who had been where I was going.  Breast cancer is not common in women under 40 although obviously it can and does happen, as it did with me.  I had to do some searching in order to find my similar aged peers facing this disease.  The Young Survival Coalition brings women who are diagnosed on the young side, and their friends and family members together, and that was crucial in keeping me from feeling isolated and alone as I came to terms with my diagnosis and treatment. I could see and figure out from the photos of the bicycling going on in the Tour de Pink that both the training beforehand and the rides themselves were avenues to renewed strength on many, many levels.
TC: How often did you train for the Tour de Pink, and what was your bicycling experience before then?  What were some of the struggles and triumphs you faced along the way?
EG: My bicycling experience was limited to that of commuting around Boston by bicycle during my twenties.  I started training for the Tour de Pink by doing loops around a pond near my house on a very heavy bicycle.  My rides gradually lengthened from a few miles to rides of 60 miles, and I began riding a real road bike, too. While I was training, there were rides in the rain and also rides in intense summer heat, but it was never a struggle.  I enjoyed every second of training and a passion for cycling definitely took hold in me.
TC: At the Tour de Pink, you learned about a contest to design a new bicycle for Giant, which would be designed specifically for this event, and for young cancer survivors like yourself.  What inspired you to enter, and what did the contest entail?
EG: When I learned about the contest, I knew it was something I wanted to do.  The creative and inspiring nature of the project seemed like the perfect combination for me.
TC: When Giant notified you that you had won the contest and that your design would be produced, what was your reaction?
EG: Ironically, I had a doctor’s appointment down in New Haven when I received the call from Giant about winning the contest.  As you know, Yale has a beautiful campus like Trinity’s and I just stood there on York Street with all of those beautiful buildings around me thanking Giant over the phone, smiling, and feeling really lucky.  Then I started calling and texting my friends and family with the good news—not only had my design been selected, but it had already been made into a prototype, it was a reality.  I think everyone should have at least one moment in life where they get to pick-up the phone or text someone with the words, “I won!” or, maybe even better, “We won!”
TC: What inspired the name “Inspire” for the bike?
EG: The late Trinity Professor Hugh Ogden is the person who first pointed out the origin of the word inspire to me.  Technically, inspire comes from “to breathe upon” as opposed to “to breathe in.”  The notion of breathing in, getting one’s breath back, and the wonderful breathtaking qualities that are found in everyday living became important as I thought about creating a bike that could embody survivorship as well as the possibilities of life.  This concept is captured by having the word “inspire” on the bicycle and the word is the main design feature.  I will never forget Hugh walking into a poetry class one day and uttering: “People always say they can’t find inspiration.  All you need to do is breathe in.  The word inspire comes from ‘to breathe in.’ Inspiration is all around us.”  For me, it was in that moment that “inspire” took on a more luminous meaning.  It has guided me often.
Watch a video by Giant Bicycle about Gresh and her bicycle design.

TC: You have been chosen as the speaker at this year’s Relay for Life at Trinity.  As a young cancer survivor, what is the best piece of advice you would give someone facing the same diagnosis? 
EG: Inspire, breathe in.  Be patient with yourself and others and know your experience as only you can.

TC: Earlier in your life, you were a professional dancer with Boston Ballet, one of the top ballet companies in the world.  Did this play a role in your battle with cancer, emotionally or physically? 
EG: My former life as a dancer constantly plays a role in my life today.  As far as cancer goes, I knew—and my friends reminded me—that I could not be at war with my dancer’s body.  I didn’t think of cancer as a battle.  It was a nightmare but not a battle.  There was nothing to fight, only things to be endured.
TC: You graduated from Trinity’s Individualized Degree Program (IDP), and now work here at Trinity.  How has your experience at Trinity helped or affected your life?
EG: Trinity gave me the ability to look at language and expression from multiple perspectives.  When I had to think about how to make a bicycle express something, I drew upon many of the things I thought about while studying creative writing with the late Fred Pfeil and literature with Chloe Wheatley at Trinity—a text can be read in many ways, so can a dancer’s body, or a patient’s.  Why not a bicycle?
TC: What is the main difference between Emily Gresh pre-diagnosis and Emily Gresh today?
EG: I like to think that cancer did not change me but the truth is that it changed me immeasurably.  Every day always mattered to me.  But now, every day matters even more.  There is only a one percent chance of a recurrence of my breast cancer, but I have known so many people who have had their cancer return.  I live every day to its fullest and let myself trust each great moment as it arrives more than I ever did before.  It’s exquisite.  I am enjoying life very much, I have to say.
Emily Gresh will be sharing her story live at the 2012 Trinity Relay for Life, on Friday, April 27 at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College.  For more on RFL, visit: http://bit.ly/JpLMyn.   Proceeds from the purchase of Avail Inspire bicycles, available through Giant Bicycles, will benefit the Young Survival Coalition.  A list of retailers can be found here: http://bit.ly/J6YruB.

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