Mark McDermott

Mirror twins who beat cancer together cycle Tour de Pier

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Annual cancer fundraiser is expected to draw 1500 riders and raise $1 million

 

Twins Claudia Levin and Colleen Atkinson. Photo courtesy Tour de Pier

by Mark McDermott

Claudia Levin and her identical twin sister Colleen came into the world 15 seconds apart. The so-called mirror twins —  Claudia is left-handed and outgoing, Colleen right-handed and more reserved — have followed each other closely ever since.

This closeness took a tough turn last year. In early January, Colleen received a diagnosis of breast cancer. Fifteen days later, Claudia received the same diagnosis.

The twins already knew cancer intimately. Their father had died of cancer in his early ‘60s, and everyone on his side of the family likewise had died from the disease, going back two generations.

Claudia, 66, a retired environmental lobbyist, grandmother, and Hermosa Beach resident, had been keenly aware of this family history all her life.

“We have always been very well aware our genetic code wasn’t the greatest,” she said. “We always carried this concern the shoe would drop with us.”

“No,” said Colleen, laughing. “I never gave it a thought. We are mirror twins. We are completely different.”

Neither had carried the BRCA gene, the best-known gene to test for breast cancer risks. Yet cancer found them anyway. But like they’d done with so much in life, they went through the experience together.

“I think that has been one sweet thing, in the hardest of times knowing my sister is going through the same things,” Colleen said. “We could talk to each other. We chose the same kind of procedure to do, with the same kind of doctors.”

“To have someone so close understand every day what you are feeling….we talked about doctors, about what we were going to do, about our fears, wishes, hopes, and dreams,” Claudia said.

They both had surgeries last March and April; both were successful. Each twin was subsequently declared cancer free. Throughout the experience, they shared something else: a determination that no matter the outcome, they would not let cancer defeat them in any ultimate way. And it is this determination that both are bringing to Manhattan Beach on Sunday when they will together cycle in the Tour de Pier, a fundraiser for cancer research. The twins are taking the fight to cancer.

“Neither of us wanted to feel victimized by this,” Claudia said. “We didn’t want this to define us. Our story is much more interesting that that —  it’s more interesting that we are twins than that we had cancer. This is not who we are. I have been riding [in Tour de Pier] for the last five years; my husband and I have been supporters of the event since its inception. This year, having my sister ride with me…I think I’m going to have lots of tears come Sunday morning.”

Manhattan Beach resident Jon Hirshberg came up with the idea for Tour De Pier after learning of a national spinning fundraiser that raised over $3 million in one day. Following the death of his father in 1997, at age 54, Hirshberg and his stepmother, Agi founded the Hirshberg Foundation, which has raised over $23 million to fund pancreatic cancer research at UCLA.

For the Tour de Pier, he enlisted the help of fellow Manhattan Beach resident and cycling enthusiast Heath Gregory, who had participated in a similar spinning fundraiser produced by the Livestrong Foundation in Barcelona during the 2009 Tour de France. Heath is a partner in The Strand House, overlooking the Manhattan Beach Pier.

In just five years, Tour de Pier has raised nearly $3 million for the Hirshberg Foundation, the Cancer Support Community of Redondo Beach and the Uncle Kory Foundation.

“The concept of Tour de Pier is so unique,” said Lisa Manheim, another co-founder of the event. “The ability to spin outdoors while looking at the ocean was naturally appealing to so many.  The true success comes from the collaboration of the three benefiting charities, our sponsors, and partners. Lastly, there really is no describing the energy you feel when you are at the event. I think this magic is what keeps people coming back and supporting us.”

Claudia and Colleen were good friends with Kory Hunter, Heath Gregory’s father-in-law, whose life was claimed by cancer.

“When I am riding, I feel the energy of the other riders, and I feel Kory Hunter with us out there,” Claudia said. “It’s exciting, it’s motivating, all those adjectives that would describe elation and support of one another. There are going to be cancer survivors riding, cancer fighters —  people in the midst of their journey. It’s unbelievably moving, the whole day.”

Nearly 1,500 cyclists will ride as teams Sunday on 350 stationary cycles stationed throughout the pier. The goal is to raise $1 million this year.

“We are celebrating our fifth year and treating it like a birthday party,” Manheim said. “From the swag bags to the apparel to other programmatic details, everything is about ‘5 Years Fighting’.”

“The South Bay is so fantastic,” Manheim said. “It has been amazing seeing the community come together to fight cancer, to embrace this event with their hearts and their treasure. From restaurants and local businesses to the City Council to lifeguards, schools, and companies, the South Bay goes all-in. I don’t think we could have experienced the same level of success in many other communities.”

The twins, Claudia said, are living proof that the money raised makes a difference.

“I know this for a fact: we are alive because of cancer research,” she said. “Ten years ago our diagnosis may have been a death sentence. That we were diagnosed early and accurately is a model to science, and the money poured into research. I look at it as we were lucky we had breast cancer because so much money has gone to breast cancer research. It’s time to put more money into other cancers —  we need research into brain cancer and pancreatic cancer. Now is the time to put in money to that research, because those cancers are treatable. They are beatable.”

The 5th Annual Tour de Pier is Sunday, May 21, from 8:30 a.m to 12:30 p.m. at the Manhattan Beach Pier. The event features a health expo, a kids fun zone, a silent auction, and celebrity riders, including Laker head coach Luke Walton, former player Steve Nash, USC head football coach Clay Helton and UCLA head football coach Jim Mora. For more information, see TourDePier.com. 

 

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