Cycling through grief: Less Cancer founder Bill Couzens turns pain into power | Local Sports

TRAVERSE CITY — A single bike was left when Bill Couzens stepped through the doors of the Bike Stop in Warrenton, Virginia in March 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to take hold in the United States and around the world when Couzens felt the nudge to start a healthier lifestyle. So Couzens bought the last electric bike in the store.

Twenty months later Couzens rode from Warrenton to Traverse City with a new mountain bike strapped to the back of his car to compete in the 32nd annual Iceman Cometh Challenge on Saturday.

But he didn’t make the 12-hour trek to the northwest for himself. No, Couzens did it for pretty much everyone but himself.

The sociable 62-year-old — the living embodiment of the phrase “bigger than life” standing at nearly 6 feet, 7 inches — has suffered a lot of loss. So much loss that it’s a miracle he can smile and laugh and joke as much as he can.

But that’s what makes Couzens who he is. He embraces life and all it offers — the good, the bad, and the in-between — because he’s seen firsthand how it can all be cut short.

So, he asks, why waste a moment of it?

Light out of darkness

Couzens’ mother died of cancer. His brother died of cancer. His sister died of cancer. Several mothers in his Grosse Pointe neighborhood developed cancer when Couzens was growing up in suburban Detroit.

“Cancer shouldn’t be an expected stage of life,” Couzens said. “The grief is real and so are the lessons for the future. Unfortunately, that’s how we learn to move on.”

Couzens advances as he advances.

His sister’s death from pancreatic cancer at age 50 spurred Couzens into initiatives to prevent cancer before the disease rears its miserable head. He found purpose in his grief and has since dedicated himself to avoiding loss as he experienced.

“I know what that pain feels like,” Couzens said. “That’s a very real part of my motivation for what I do — turning pain into strength.”

Couzens didn’t want to fight cancer or beat cancer or conquer cancer. He wanted to stop cancer before it even had a chance to enter the ring. That is the focus of Less Cancer, the charity Couzens founded in 2004.

The efforts are moving away from the treatment-oriented approaches and seeking a cure that many other organizations are adopting. According to Couzens, this is deliberate.

“Of course I want healing. I have sought the cure for so many people in my life who have died,” he said. “But the real miracle is in its prevention.”

Less Cancer works to educate lawmakers, medical professionals, and the public on how to prevent cancer in hopes of changing public policy at both the state and federal levels. The organization also provides continuing education opportunities to physicians, nurses, and other public health professionals through the University of Virginia.

Through Less Cancer, Couzens founded National Cancer Prevention Day, which falls on the same date as World Cancer Day, February 4. He also helped organize the bipartisan United States Congressional Cancer Prevention Caucus, which was formed by U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan, and created the annual National Cancer Prevention Day workshop for members of Congress, staff, media and the big public.

Couzens also partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation in 2012 to establish programs that help families reduce disease and cancer risks associated with their environment and lifestyle.

“The tools for prevention are very different from the care we might get for someone we love with cancer,” Couzens said. “We don’t treat cancer, but we create public health policies to prevent people from getting cancer.”

Driving for business

Despite the organization’s national clout, Less Cancer operates with an annual budget of just $200,000. Much of that comes from the Less Cancer Bike Ride America that officially began in Detroit in 2014 but now takes place every year in Traverse City.

Last year, however, the two-day ride went virtual — and worldwide.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the June 2020 in-person event was canceled, so Couzens and other race organizers had to get creative. Their solution was to invite cyclists to take their own ride wherever they were. The switch resulted in people participating not only in Michigan and many other states, but also in Mexico, Canada, France and Italy.

Traverse City cyclists — including Tim Pulliam — made up the bulk of the riders, and the event raised more than $80,000 to help build cancer prevention programs in 40 countries. Pulliam, an avid cyclist and previous Iceman participant, led his group on an eight-hour ride that was 150 miles long and included nearly 6,000 feet of elevation.

Pulliam has accompanied Couzens on trips to Washington, DC, for the Nation Cancer Prevention Day workshop and has been a strong supporter of Less Cancer’s work. Pulliam’s father was an industrial electrician and died of lung cancer, probably caused by exposure to asbestos. Pulliam was only 8 years old.

Pulliam sees Couzens as a much-needed voice that can provide a platform for people to express their views and drive real change in policies and practices that can potentially prevent cancer.

“It’s so easy for us to assume that when we order food or turn on our tap water or walk out in our city, we’ll be fine,” Pulliam said. “It’s not that we’re all out to ignore all that, we’re just comfortable with the idea that things are safer than they really are. It’s good to peel that back and look at it.”

Iceman will serve as just another amplifier for Couzens’ voice, Pulliam said.

“There will be 5000 people working together. That collective energy really builds the mind,” he said. “Bill already has a bit of energy. This is just another positive direction for that energy.”

Community of support

Pulliam persuaded Iceman Race Director Cody Sovis to join the Less Cancer bike tour a few years ago, which covered 280 miles in two days. Sovis is now a member of the cycling committee and a contributor to the online journal Less Cancer. He has also traveled to DC with Couzens to speak with members of the congressional committee and to support cancer prevention initiatives.

Like Couzens and Pulliam – and millions of others – Sovis’s life has been touched by cancer. Two of his grandparents and a close cousin died of the disease, and Sovis’s aunt is currently battling cancer.

“Unfortunately, cancer is something that every time you walk into a room, someone is struck by it,” Sovis said. “My experience is not really rare. It is a pity that cancer is a common thread among all of us.”

Sovis is delighted that Couzens first joined the Iceman and brought the Less Cancer message to more people.

“He’s the type of guy who will make a lot of friends along the way,” Sovis said before the race. “He will make a lot of people laugh.”

Couzens, however, did not take the 29-mile mammoth course. Instead, he dipped his toe in the Iceman waters with the 8-mile Slush Cup for novice and novice cyclists.

Couzens said before the race that he expected “a bunch of preschoolers” to beat him.

“I told Cody I really wanted to do the ‘old man, little boy’ division,” he said. ‘I have no more idea than a cat I’m working on for God’s sake. I’m just going to try to kick and smile and hope it all works out. That is my great prayer.”

Couzens was unable to use his e-bike on the trail—a realization he had after signing up for the race. Couzens bought a regular mountain bike for the Iceman, took it for a ride, then texted Sovis.

“He was just shocked at how much bigger the hills are when you have to pedal all the time,” said Sovis. “But in Bill’s real way, that just made him more motivated. He’s driven a ton.”

That Couzens can drive at all is impressive.

A benign tumor on his spinal cord that caused severe and debilitating pain — and subsequent surgery to remove it — left Couzens with limited mobility and neuropathy in his legs and feet. Cycling gave him new energy, gave him a healthier lifestyle and helped him lose more than a few pounds, but Couzens won’t release the exact number.

“I’m not small,” Couzens said. “But I used to be a lot bigger.”

Couzens’ hope is to inspire other “older, chubby guys” to get healthy. He also wanted to show his gratitude to the overwhelming number of northern Michigan cyclists and Iceman riders who support Less Cancer and its mission.

“Everyone lives with the specter of cancer hanging over their heads in one form or another,” Couzens said. “I’m not afraid of cancer in the sense that I might someday get it. I’m really focused on putting those unnecessary and avoidable risks to bed.”

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