John Ragland has lived in Westport, on and off, for 25 years. He raised his family here, and works in health-care IT in South Norwalk.
But this story is about the other part of his life. Ragland is committed to cancer care -- specifically, cancer survivorship. He's part of a network of men and women, in Westport and elsewhere, who devote countless hours to the cause.
Ragland is a good friend of Jeff Keith. He's the Fairfield native who lost his leg at age 12, but became a high school ski captain, lacrosse goalie at Boston College, and the first amputee to run across the United States (raising more than $1 million for the American Cancer Society in the process). Keith then co-founded three nonprofits: Swim Across the Sound, Swim Across America and the Connecticut Challenge. Those organizations have raised more than $75 million and had an impact on countless lives.
Ragland -- an avid cyclist with an entrepreneurial bent -- helped start the CT Challenge. The first bike-ride fundraiser was held in August 2005, just five months after planning began. It earned $250,000.
Growth has been exponential. Last year's ride raised $1.6 million. This year's event -- set for July 26 and 27 -- will involve more than 1,000 riders. Starting at the Fairfield County Hunt Club here in Westport, they'll choose between 10-, 25-, 50-, 75- or 100- mile courses through beautiful Connecticut countryside. (Those who begin Friday will ride 80 more, from Lakeville to Fairfield.)
The mission of the CT Challenge is to "empower cancer survivors to take control of their health by offering credible information, comprehensive resources and a road map for them to live healthier, happier and longer lives."
Cancer places several personal burdens on survivors and their families, and complicated stresses on the health-care system. Survivorship care combines planning, prevention and awareness.
Funds support programs and events at the CT Challenge Center for Survivorship in the Southport section of Fairfield, and at 19 regional hospitals and cancer centers. Last year alone, programs funded by the CT Challenge impacted more than 54,000 survivors. In addition, money is directed toward groundbreaking research that will benefit cancer survivors everywhere.
"We see cancer all around us," Ragland said. "I lost my father-in-law, and lots of good friends." Through the CT Challenge, he meets hundreds of survivors. There are more than 170,000 in Connecticut, and 14 million across the United States.
"You get close to them as they try to get better," Ragland said. "Some flourish. Some deteriorate. Making sure all of them have access to what we provide is a powerful motivator."
The organization "helps them reset their lives after treatment. We give them a road map on how to live. Whether they're in treatment or trying to get their lives back afterward, we're there."
Doctors deal with cancer symptoms, Ragland said. His organization tends to the psychological issues. CT Challenge does it through research, study, advice, programs -- and a physical center for survivors, which opened in Southport last October. It's the first of its kind in the nation not affiliated with a hospital.
Some cancer survivors are very vocal, Ragland said. Others suffer quietly. Some deal with recurrences of the disease.
Each person's needs are different. Some must develop good habits like exercising, eating right and reducing stress. Some have financial worries. Many face physical, emotional, social, even organizational issues.
Those are lots of challenges. But that's why the CT Challenge bike ride is so important.
The organization's website teems with stirring stories. A Fairfield woman diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 14 years ago said that her son gave her courage and hope; her fiance showered her with "love, strength and unending support," and her parents joined her at every treatment session.
A man rode while his best friend was treated for Stage 4 cancer -- and that friend rode, too. Over the years, that team has raised more than $150,000.
Like every survivor, every rider's story is unique -- and vital.
The upcoming bike ride is family-oriented, Ragland said. Besides the bicycling, there are "festival-style" events. The choice of distances encourages broad participation. So does the chance to ride in teams. "But be aware," Ragland warned. "Connecticut is not flat."
He has a good basis of comparison. Last month, Ragland rode cross-country in the Race Across America. Starting in Oceanside, Calif., and ending six-and-a-half days later in Annapolis, Md., he and his teammates rode in shifts 24 hours a day. Thanks to their perseverance and athleticism -- and a six-person crew -- they finished fourth out of 17 teams. The money they raised will help fund a survivorship research study.
Ragland and his team proudly wore CT Challenge jerseys along the route. They made a name for themselves while spreading awareness about their cause.
"We saw so many little gems of the country," Ragland said.
Sounds awesome. But, he should know, the CT Challenge is a wonderful gem, too.