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.

Giant (Bicycles) Love

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Feeling the love for my Avail Inspire bicycle.  If you wake up to a bike like this everyday, rain or shine, you will want to ride it.  Here is my bike on the back of my car before a ride with some nice detail visible.  I will add that thanks to a generous partnership between the Young Survival Coalition and Giant Bicycles, the survivors participating in the Tour de Pink who are in need of a bicycle will receive one of my bikes…compliments of Giant.  Giant love of that.  I hope to see many Inspires out there on the Tour.  Emily Gresh

Here Now: The Young Survival Coalition and Designing the Liv/giant Avail Inspire

Young Breast Cancer Survivor and Avail Inspire Bike Designer
Young Breast Cancer Survivor and Avail Inspire Bike Designer (Photo by Miceli Productions) 
I didn’t expect to get breast cancer at a young age but I also never thought I’d design a bicycle that then got made especially for me, survivors, and their families and friends.  At 40, I am a young survivor of breast cancer, as well as the designer of the Liv/giant Avail Inspire, a special edition bicycle being produced by Giant and the result of a design contest for survivors.  Sales of the bicycle will benefit the Young Survival Coalition (YSC), a premier organization dedicated to helping young women with breast cancer. YSC certainly had an impact on my recovery.  Among many people who supported me during my cancer experience, the faces of survivors on YSC’s website helped me take up cycling and ultimately connected me with the Tour de Pink.  In doing so, those faces and the Tour, and the friends I met during the Tour, all helped reconnect me with my health.  I first heard about the design contest back in September of 2011, when I was riding 200 miles over three days. At the time, I wondered how one would design a bicycle that could be a powerful symbol of survivorship and hope.  I had to think carefully about how to make a bicycle speak for young survivors of breast cancer and their families.  This video, beautifully put together by Miceli Productions, captures the story of my final design and details of my cancer experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLWsEq2XdrQ or www.LivgiantUSA.com/Inspire.  Also, to support the Young Survival Coalition through the Tour de Pink East Coast Ride 2012–I will riding in the Tour again this year and will be joined by two friends that I met on my first Tour last year–please visit my personal page by on the Tour de Pink site by following the link: http://www.ysctourdepink.org/site/TR/TourdePink/TourdePink-EastCoast?px=1060433&pg=personal&fr_id=1290.

Bicycle and me, a minimalist partnership (Photo: Miceli Productions)
Bicycle and me, a minimalist partnership (Photo: Miceli Productions)
For most of my life , I have been thinking about expression, physicality, rhythms, and partnerships. In my earlier life as a professional ballet dancer, there was always the foundation of music to pair up with, to be pushed by, to provide for soft landings and energy as needed.  The bicycle has its own orchestral qualities, many parts put together to create something that carries the rider along.  With an orchestra accompanying a dancer, this carrying ebbs and flows from ferocious and epic to the other extreme: subtle movement combined with a pause between musical phrases that is striking to the core, as dramatic as any coda-required spin or leap.  Add to this machinery, a peloton of more dancers and the full combination of people and mechanics is there in my past, and truthfully, will always remain present within me.  In many ways, my partnership with the bicycle and my place within a small peloton of cycling friends has become a minimalist post-modern version of all of that past, though each phase is unique in its own right. This combination of my bicycle and new friends, along with the words of existing friends and family from all periods in my life (dancers and people from my dancing life importantly among them), and the motivation provided by images of other survivors in the Tour de Pink, all carried me through my year after cancer diagnosis and surgery.
Peloton, a symphony of friends and bicycles getting me through (Miceli Productions)
Peloton, a symphony of friends and bicycles getting me through (Miceli Productions)
In 2010, my body, and all of its expressive qualities, went under the surgeon’s knife.   As it is for anyone undergoing such surgery, it was a terrible time in my life.  A favorite poem of mine, albeit dark, is a poem titled In the Surgical Theatre.  There are parts of the poem I can’t understand, it verges into a complexity that I am not quite sure of.  What I did understand and take from the poem though, was the quality of flight out of the body during such trauma, of watching from a distance as the body is cut, of wondering how to go down and back in, of hands and faces gathering around to heal but also those same hands and faces wondering with me, “What now?”.  A mix of the collective and my own private steps were needed to heal me, to bring me back into my body and to understand its whole power again.  It required both strength and mercy on myself, rest and struggles, metaphoric wracked symphonies and heartbreaking elegies.  It required many moments of breathing in my own personal difficulties and those of my family and friends who were with and around me, as is the reminder within the word inspire placed on my bicycle.  The word inspire originates from ‘to breathe in.’  While we often think of it in a more distant sense, as in someone or something else inspiring us, the word is grounded in our own powerful ability.  Sometimes I had to wait and be patient about breathing in but I did indeed return to my body in the year following my surgery.  I came to understand its fine mechanics again and its remarkable abilities.
Survivor
Survivor
As positive as my recovery may sound, I will add that there is never a “good part” about having cancer. I am not a believer in “what my cancer experience taught me”  since I could have come to cycling through some other means.  I will say that I am glad that I found cycling.  I’m glad I found the Tour de Pink and the Young Survival Coalition. I will also say that while I like to believe cancer did not change me, its impact on me was actually profound.  While I lived my life to the fullest prior to having cancer, today I value every day even more, and I trust in each beautiful moment in my life unlike ever before.  The chances of my cancer coming back are less than one percent but I know many people who have had their cancer return and the mad dashes in unwanted directions that life takes.  Today I am taking in every great second for its full measure of satisfaction and joy, including every moment on my bike.  Emily Gresh
  The return and keeping me here now
The return and keeping me here now
Here is a link to the Young Survival Coalition’s Tour de PInk website:http://www.ysctourdepink.org/site/TR/TourdePink/TourdePink-EastCoast?fr_id=1290&pg=entry.

Me and the Inspire bike (Photo by Miceli Productions)
Me and the Inspire bike (Photo by Miceli Productions)

I am riding with…Team Inspire.

To follow more stories about my life in cycling and the Liv/giant Inspire, follow my blog by clicking on the “Follow” button on the right of this post.

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A few casual photos: My friends took some photos as the bike was delivered and as we did the shoot for the Giant Bicycles video.  The photos also include the people that I go cycling with the most.  I can’t say enough about them and especially their willingness to let me ride with them when I was first starting to get out on a road bike.  They helped me recover from cancer and the devastation that it brings in more ways than they can imagine.

Giant Bicycles sent a production team to my house to capture my story in photos and the video that they produced.  “Production” style photos are below.

The team getting ready for video taping at my house:

Miceli Productions from Connecticut
Miceli Productions from Connecticut

Mike Miceli and his crew did an outstanding job of helping me share the story of my cancer treatment, survival, and recovery, and especially the powerful experience of training for and participating in the Young Survival Coalition’s Tour de Pink.  The best part of the day was after the taping at the house, when I set out with my bicycle, and met my friends at a local reservoir nearby to get some footage of the Inspire bike in action.

At the reservoir preparing for some Inspire action shots:

Getting ready for the outdoor filming
Getting ready for the outdoor filming

Mike put a helmet camera on my helmet to get some different angles for the video:

The helmet camera
The helmet camera
Me and more inspiring friends getting ready
Me and more inspiring friends getting ready

Off we go on camera:

Making the video
Making the video

Some future posts coming up will include some more photos from the filming and more of the bike and a little more about my cancer experience and design choices.