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How a Brain Tumor Helped Cyclist Chris Baccash Change His Life

Chris Baccash at the 100-mile bike race
Chris Baccash, feeling blissful moments after finishing the 2021 Leadville 100-mile bike race.

Being a professional cyclist with an optimistic disposition and an adventurous spirit comes in handy when, after having a seizure at work and waking up in a hospital, you eventually learn that you have a large brain tumor.

This happened to then-27-year-old Chris Baccash in December 2019. It turned out that he had a diffuse astrocytoma — a slow-growing malignant brain tumor. The recommended course of action: two surgeries, three weeks apart with neurosurgeon Donald M. O'Rourke, MD, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), to remove as much of it as possible. It would have been understandable for him to feel despondent, afraid, or worried about the road that lay ahead. But he had a different reaction to the news. 

At the time, Baccash had a job Monday-Friday managing a business analytics team for a company in New Jersey and spent his weekends racing and training with the Doylestown Bike Works elite cycling team. He had recently finished the hardest event of the season — the 50-mile Bucks County Classic, in his hometown of Doylestown, PA, with a personal-best time. He felt on top of the world in terms of his athletic achievement and was planning on longer, harder races in 2020. But he was not content. 

Chris Baccash riding his bike in the Bucks County Classic race
In 2019, Baccash finished the Bucks County Classic, the hardest race of the season, with a personal-best time. A few months later, he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

For one thing, he wanted to spend more time cycling, the most engaging, pleasant, and meaningful activity he had ever been part of: “When else do you get to ride through a beautiful countryside, side by side with a good friend, and have an uninterrupted conversation for five hours?” 

For another thing, while his professional career was growing, he wanted to get back to his childhood dream of doing work that helped people. So while he wasn’t thrilled to have cancer, he was interested in how this “imposed pause” in his life could present some new opportunities. 

“I knew that my situation was going to take a while to get corrected and I would have a chance to reprioritize,” he said. “It’s rare that we get these opportunities to pause and stop the show. I thought, ‘This is an opportunity to change my life.’”

And that is what he did.

The night before his first brain surgery, he told his teammates he wanted to race the infamous Leadville Trail 100 MTB — 100 miles of cycling across the high-altitude, extreme terrain of the Colorado Rockies. 

A display of cards and books
After Baccash’ diagnosis, he received an outpouring of cards and books. He saved all the mail to open after his second surgery.

After recovering from a second surgery three weeks later to remove more of the tumor, Baccash left the hospital motivated to be a stronger athlete. And at the same time, he was beginning to question “the self-centered training and performance lifestyle I had led for most of my 20s,” he says in “Mountains We Climb,” a documentary short directed by his high school friend about the road to Leadville.

He vowed to do the race, but not focus on winning. Yes, he would push himself to his limit, but that was to be able to do the thing he loved, surrounded by beauty, in the company of good friends. On Aug. 1, 2021, after 10-and-a-half hours of cycling in the Colorado heat, he crossed the Leadville finish line hand-in-hand with his buddy, Jason Wood, feeling pure joy and serenity. It was everything he had wished for.

Three weeks later, Baccash started graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a master of Applied Positive Psychology, centered on the science of well-being. It was a subject that had long captivated his interest, and the more he read, the more he felt compelled to dedicate his life to the field. Not long after that, he finally made the decision to leave his job and focus on his health and his studies. 

While he strives for positivity, there have been many difficult days as well, Baccash shared. For example, in October 2021, when he made the decision to discontinue a clinical trial he had hoped would remove the residual tumor, because his tumor had continued to grow; in January of 2022, when he went in for a third surgery with O’Rourke knowing he couldn’t have any visitors due to COVID-19; and most of 2020, when he was largely isolated from the people he cared about. But he’s been able to acknowledge and honor the sadness while expressing immense gratitude for the amazing, life-affirming moments that have happened since his diagnosis. 

Chris Baccash with his family at the University of Pennsylvania graduation
Baccash graduated in May with a master’s in Applied Positive Psychology from Penn, just a couple of blocks from where he has had his surgeries and treatments.

After that third surgery, in the new Pavilion at HUP, to address the continued growth of his tumor, Baccash underwent seven weeks of proton radiation therapy at the Abramson Cancer Center’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center under the care of radiation oncologist Robert Lustig, MD — which “was painless, fascinating, and instilled a lot of hope for me.” He recently began a year of oral chemotherapy, after which he is hopeful to have many years free of medical intervention.

The documentary short “Mountains We Climb” premiered at the Bicycle Film Festival in Doylestown in April in front of a couple hundred friends and family members, “a total love fest and an honor,” he said. This summer, the film was also shown at the New Hope Film Festival and at the SouthSide Film Festival in Bethlehem, PA, alongside other films about resilience and triumph.

Now 30, Baccash graduated from his master’s program just two blocks from where he had his surgeries and treatments. His final capstone project explores friendship and virtue in the context of adversity, and whether “the hard stuff in life is really the good stuff in life,” which, after the last two-and-a-half years, he knows to be true.

“I think that there is an ideal amount of adversity. And I believe that doing hard things with your friends both makes the friendship better and makes the adversity easier to shoulder,” he said. “By seeking out hard things together — and it doesn’t have to be a catastrophe like brain cancer, it can be a race, or a project, just something difficult to rally around — we get to see the goodness in one another.”

Baccash isn’t sure what will come next; as of early August, he was looking for a job to support himself while he pursues further graduate studies. Ultimately, he wants “a life and practice centered on helping others thrive and continuing to learn the fascinating science of well-being.”

For those who might be struggling right now with a difficult diagnosis, like brain cancer, he has some words of wisdom:

“It is perfectly OK to look at your circumstance and diagnosis and say, ‘This really sucks.’ And if you don’t want to reframe it in that moment, don’t,” he said. “But there’s a beautiful quote by Khalil Gibran, who said, ‘The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.’ And that’s the gift of perspective.”

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