Months before 22 riders from up and down Vancouver Island received their training jerseys and bikes – an official badge of honour signalling their Canadian Cancer Society Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock participation – something had to push them through the door. Something had to motivate them to apply to ride – to be willing to volunteer hours of their time fundraising, training, and working toward the eradication of childhood cancer.

For some it’s the brand itself. They’ve seen the power of Tour de Rock and what it can do. For others, it’s the people they know, the ones who have fought cancer. In one case – the fight is personal.

And that’s where we begin.

Nicole Emery, now 42 years old, was first diagnosed when she was three.

“I had a tumour in my sinus behind my eye that was also pushing on the roof of my mouth,” she said. “It was inoperable because of its location, so the treatment option was radiation then chemo.”

It would take a year-and-a-half to get rid of it – and only spurred more medical treatments.

“Unfortunately, radiation at that age is quite damaging,” explained my teammate. “The bones that were radiated in my face remained the size of my 3-year-old self.” 

Reconstructive surgery started when she was 11 and went on until she was 18. Nine years ago, the firefighter with Oyster River’s volunteer department would then learn she had thyroid cancer from the radiation she received when she was a child.

“Guess what? More surgery to remove my thyroid this time,” she said.

Today, Emery is “thriving and well” – and eager to make a difference.

“I want to be a beacon of hope for all the kids battling cancer – and also for their parents… I feel hope can make a huge difference in someone’s daily outlook and happiness," Emery added.

I don’t know any teammate riding for just one reason.

West Shore RCMP constable Brent Vose is among those with many in mind – like a cousin and aunt who both lost their lives to the disease and his four kids.

“I could not imagine what it would be like if any of them got cancer or if any of them passed away. They are my life,” he said. “The pain and suffering I feel from other parents whose children have cancer rocks me to the core every time.”

“In my lifetime, I want to see cancer cured and I want to know that, in some small way, I helped to make that happen.”

Victoria Police sergeant Derek Tolmie has been part of the fight since Tour de Rock started forming in the mid-90s. A friend of his asked if he wanted to take part in a mass head shaving event modeled after an Australian fundraiser against cancer. It was 1996. His policing career was just starting out and coincidentally his mom had been recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

“This diagnosis hit our family hard,” said Tolmie. “From the onset, I felt helpless as I wanted to do something to support my mom through her health challenge.”

So when he was asked to shave his head in exchange for donations, Tolmie jumped at the opportunity raising more than $200 between the punch of an email to co-workers and his return to work the following day.

His work in the fight against cancer didn’t stop there. In 1997, Tolmie, along with an Oak Bay Police constable and volunteer president with the Canadian Cancer Society at the time, went on to help coordinate Victoria’s first Cops for Cancer mass head shaving event. It involved 188 volunteers who raised more than $125,000 in four hours.

The first ride was in 1998 and has since raised more than $24 million for pediatric cancer research and support programs.

Then, just last fall Tolmie would be personally affected by a cancer diagnosis again. This time it struck his father who was vacationing in Germany.

“One month to the day after his diagnosis, he would be gone,” he said.

“I am not riding this year because cancer took my dad,” explained Tolmie. “I’m riding because cancer did not take my mom.”

Another common thread answering the ‘why’ question is because we can. 

“Since I’m healthy now, it’s my chance to make a difference in childhood cancer and research,” said 2018 rider, Greg Stubbs. “Through my career as a paramedic, I’ve seen firsthand what changes when your child gets sick – nothing else matters but their health. So if I can help just a little bit to make that easier for a family, it will be worth it.”

Amanda McRae already spends five to six days a week riding her bike. The competitive cyclist started riding four years ago. 

“Cycling is my passion. It’s my happy place,” said the BC Ambulance Service paramedic and firefighter with Tofino’s department.

But that’s not all.

“Cycling has helped me overcome life’s obstacles and I want to ride for someone else,” she said. “My dad. My dad is my main motivator.”

Nearing the end of his lengthy struggle with cancer, that would eventually claim his life, McCrae hopped on her bike to help a Tour de Rock alumni rider’s campaign.

“Knowing I was losing my dad and I couldn’t do anything to change that left me feeling hopeless, depressed, empty, and lost.”

In three days she rode more than 500 km from Tofino to Port Hardy to raise money for Marcel Midlane’s fundraising efforts toward the Canadian Cancer Society.

“This year… it’s my ride times 21. I have 21 fellow riders with me who have their own story. I have support. I have a new family to help me grieve.”

The heartache was palpable reading through the email. I had asked my teammates to give me a sense of their motivations for this article.

McCrae’s wasn’t the only one that stuck.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be riding,” started Shane Coubrough in his. The Mountie was recalling watching Tour de Rock growing up on Vancouver Island – and how he secretly hoped he would get to take part when he joined the RCMP.

Nine years into that career, Coubrough is working with the General Investigation Section. It focuses on crimes like serious assaults, sexual assaults and child pornography.

“I have been doing that work for about a year-and-a-half – and it is soul destroying. I cannot understand how someone can do these horrible things to children,” he said.

A father himself, Coubrough finds strength thinking back to his family’s time spent at a facility that gives seriously ill children and their families a place to stay when his daughter needed heart surgery three years ago. 

“I often think back to our time at the Ronald McDonald House and how happy those sick kids were playing in the Lego room or looking at the ‘Nemo fish’ in the aquarium, and [I] tell myself that if they can be so positive in such terrible conditions, I can pull my shit together and catch another bad guy, search another computer, write another report and hope it makes a difference.”

And it’s kids who continue to inspire his next journey – this one with Tour de Rock. 

“I need to see kids smile,” he said. “The world is ours. Not the bad guy’s. Not cancer’s.”

Police officers, firefighters, paramedics, a retired school principal – they’re all united hoping to make a difference one ride, one fundraiser at a time.

And then there’s me.

For seven years I’ve listened to people’s stories as a reporter. Some of them stick, heavy in your stomach like oatmeal after breakfast not wanting to go or they leave an ache in your heart.

A little more recently: It was Derrick Nickerson’s story.

The father of two was determined to beat stage 4 esophageal cancer. His wife would leave post-it notes with words of encouragement around the house – and once said through tears they had met later in life. She wasn’t ready for their story to end.

I sat there helpless – just a messenger.

Derrick died in January. It leaves a wife widowed, two boys without their father.

I’ll be thinking of them when I ride, which is an honour.

For years I’ve wanted to take part in Canadian Cancer Society Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock. 

The 2013 ride was one of my first assignments moving to Vancouver Island. The team stopped in Nanaimo’s Diana Krall Plaza and the energy surrounding the event was electric, motivating, hopeful.

It digs for change.

And I too want to be a part of that for families like Derrick’s. It’s a chance to take action against a disease that hurts.