When the annual Pan-Mass Challenge bike-a-thon for cancer research begins Saturday, two Berkshire County riders who bonded as soul mates and survivors of the disease will team up.
The event is a major fundraiser for the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center in Boston. And Fredrick Knight, a first-time rider, and his close friend, Suzanne Merritt, credit the renowned hospital for saving their lives.
During a conversation with The Eagle, they also pointed out that their goal — giving back to Dana-Farber and to their Berkshire supporters — has a direct community impact.
That’s because, in 2015, Berkshire Medical Center became an affiliate of the Dana-Farber Cancer Care Collaborative, meaning that BMC’s standards and practices are validated by one of the nation’s leading cancer care and research institutions, benefiting the hospital’s patients.
The BMC Cancer Center had opened in January 2014 at its Hillcrest campus in Pittsfield.
Knight, 27, a native of the Bangor, Maine, area, said that he came to the Berkshires in June 2017, after graduating from the University of Southern Maine with a degree in mechanical and electrical engineering.
“I was offered a job in the General Dynamics Mission Systems Engineering Leadership Program,” he said. “The three-year program required full-time work for the company as a systems engineer, completing internal leadership training, and getting a technical master’s degree while working full time.”
In January 2020, Knight got the degree from Pennsylvania State University, but one month after his graduation, he was diagnosed with early-stage testicular cancer, which required surgery. But, by summer, it had spread to his abdomen, he said.
After a rigorous three-month course of chemotherapy, Knight was in remission, though he gets bimonthly checkups.
Last fall, he joined Lenox Fit, whose president, Merritt, 54, is a breast cancer survivor about to bike in her ninth Pan-Mass Challenge (PMC). Her aggressive case had been diagnosed in January 2012 at Dana-Farber, where she learned that it was a genetic cancer from a mutation called the BRCA2 gene.
“This meant that not only was I at high risk for breast cancer, but for ovarian and pancreatic cancers as well,” she said. At the health club, Merritt took Knight under her wing, helping him regain his strength.
“We became fast friends,” she said. “Now, he’s on the complete road to recovery and I got him to join my team, Forza-G, for PMC. We have bonded through becoming survivors as well as our love of fitness.”
For Knight, his two-day, 192-mile ride from Sturbridge to Provincetown, with a stopover in Bourne on Saturday night, is a challenging mission to be accomplished.
He has raised just over $30,000 “so we can create strong support networks for all people impacted by cancer,” he said.
“I am riding for the incredible people that have donated and been with me through my journey; they are the reason I am here,” Knight said. “I am riding the PMC for the people going through cancer treatment right now and to support the talented medical staff at Dana-Farber who saved my life. They deserve the resources they need to discover the unknown.”
After an overnight stay on the Cape after the ride with his teammates, Knight is looking forward to driving home with his fiancé, Kate Parsons. The couple, who live in Lee, are anticipating a wedding next year.
Merritt points out that her fellow survivor “had never really biked before this, just like me when I first got involved with the PMC.”
This year, she has raised nearly $30,000 for her 81-mile ride from Bourne to Provincetown, part of the $176,015 total since her first ride in 2012.
“We are the top two fundraisers on our team,” she said proudly. Merritt and Knight described their own teamwork for the Pan-Mass Challenge as a personal tribute to the Berkshire community that has supported them in their recovery from cancer.
Merritt’s treatment required nearly 50 visits to Dana-Farber, where she is monitored by two specialists.
“Because of the treatment and care I received there during my illness and the follow-up care I continue to receive, cancer no longer defines my life,” Merritt said. “Over the past nine years, the PMC has given me a greater sense of purpose after my journey with cancer. It has united me with like-minded people who share a drive to help fund a cure for people just like me, so that everyone who hears the diagnosis, ‘You have cancer,’ will get the chance to live a full, healthy and long life.
“The gift I received from Dana-Farber is pay it forward; to give back to the community that saved my life and allowed me to continue to be here on this earth,” she stated in a note to prospective donors. “My children still have their mother, my husband still has his wife, my parents still have their daughter, my sister still has her Big Sis, and my friends and I still have each other.”
Knight acknowledged that his diagnosis “changed me forever. Chemotherapy at 26 years old? I thought I had done everything ‘right.’ I was a college athlete who continued to exercise and lead a healthy lifestyle in my professional life. I live my life with positivity, love and happiness.”
His treatment, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, taught him that “with a strong support system, I can make positive change from adversity.”
Knight credits his medical team, friends, family and employer.
“I would come home from a long day of chemo to mountains of letters, packages, texts, and calls from coworkers, friends and family,” he recalled.
In a note to supporters, Knight said: “This story is about all of you, because I would not be where I am today without you. You all stepped up in a very big way throughout my battle with cancer. Now let us help others battle through this disease!”