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Biking coast-to-coast for a cause; 2 students from Niagara U take aim at a cross-country effort to aid cancer patients

Many college students, halfway through the school year, are focused on which summer parties they'll attend.

Two Niagara University students have bigger plans.

Vince Schiano and Chris Zukas are hoping to be among 90 participants in the 4K for Cancer, a cross-country bike ride to raise funds and provide support for cancer patients.

"The pain one feels when someone's diagnosed is one of worst feelings," Schiano said. "It is the lump in the back of your throat. This is my way of kind of combating that."

If they raise $4,500, Schiano and Zukas will hit the road for the West Coast on Memorial Day. Schiano hopes to bike from Baltimore to San Francisco, while Zukas is aiming to travel from Baltimore to Portland, Ore. They would cross paths in Boulder, Colo.

The cross-country event was launched in 2001 by Johns Hopkins University students and is now affiliated with the Ulman Cancer Found for Young Adults. The program raised $476,000 last summer, and 90 percent of the funds go directly to cancer-affected families who need help paying hospital bills and would like to attend recovery camps. The 70-day bike ride also will benefit scholarships for young adult cancer survivors.

"It's a cause I'm very passionately concerned about and wanted to really fight back for," Zukas said. "Being a student at a Catholic, Vincentian school has played a really big part in paying back."

The two were impressed with the effect the fundraising has had on cancer-stricken families, but they also have personal reasons for getting on their bikes.

Zukas, an Elmira native, was a sophomore in high school when his father was diagnosed with cancer. A year later, he succumbed to the disease.

"I saw the impact it had not only on me and him, but on my mom, my brother and the rest of the family," Zukas said. "I saw the bills mount, the pressures, stress, frustration and just the physical and emotional toll it takes on people. Seeing it firsthand really allowed for it to stand out and be the cause that really I've been fighting for ever since then."

The senior marketing major, who is president of Niagara's Student Government Association, has also taken part in events promoted by the American Cancer, Make-A-Wish and Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundations.

One particular event had an indelible impact on Zukas. In the spring, the student government teamed with the Niagara community to raise more than $6,000 to send Logan, a 4-year-old boy stricken with leukemia, to Disney World with his family.

Before his going-away party, Logan told Zukas he was especially excited to bring back toys from Disney World to his friends at the hospital.

"I wrote that comment down and stuck it on my bedroom wall," Zukas said. "I look at Logan's comment every day and try to act more selfless."

Schiano, a junior communication studies major from Gates, near Rochester, lost two grandparents to lung cancer, and his aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago.

"That really kind of hit the family hard, Schiano said. "I never really knew what it was until my Aunt Donna got diagnosed with breast cancer."

Being more selfless, and more aware of those with cancer, means putting in the hard work to raise the money.

In November, Schiano coordinated a 4K for Cancer night at Buffalo Wild Wings in which 10 percent of sales went to benefit the race. He hopes to host a similar night at Applebee's in March, and has gone door-to-door selling candy bars. Most of his funds have come from donations.

Zukas has been soliciting family members, Niagara students and businesses in Buffalo and Lewiston for donations, which can be made at www.4kforcancer.org/profiles/vince-schiano, as well as www.4kforcancer.org/profiles/christopher-zukas.

That dedication also means getting in top shape to handle the 4,000-mile ride. Schiano has never been an avid bike rider but has been active in physical fitness.

"That's why this opportunity has really piqued my interest," he said.

Schiano completes an anaerobic training regimen and works out for more than an hour four times per week. He has completed 35- and 50-mile bike rides.

Zukas, a former diver, has been ducking into the gym between classes for 20-mile bike rides. In the spring, he hopes to ride from Buffalo to Niagara Falls, and from Niagara Falls to Rochester.

"I knew this was going to be definitely the most physical and mental challenge I've had to go through in my life, which is fitting because it's definitely, for cancer patients, the most physical and mental experience they're going to experience," Zukas said.

In addition to the financial assistance, participants visit cancer patients, take part in community dinners and give cancer-awareness presentations during their journey.

"I'm excited because this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Schiano said. "I want to be able to tell my kids, 'Your dad biked across the nation to fight cancer. I'm never going to be a doctor, or be a surgeon, [but] I want to do everything in my power to fight this disease.'

"I want to see a day when no family members have to deal with that."

email: cspecht@buffnews.com