From anatomy lab to cancer battle, MUSC student shows gratitude by taking on LOWVELO bike ride

July 12, 2022
photo of a young woman in tee shirt and jeans posing with bike
When Bridget Horgan arrived in Charleston to attend the MUSC College of Health Professions, she didn't expect to become a cancer patient. Photo by Kristin Lee

At first glance, Bridget Horgan is your typical MUSC student - bright, eager and ready to learn. But what you don’t see on the surface is the grit and determination that got her through her first year of graduate school.

In May 2021, Horgan was checking things off her to-do list before leaving home in New York to start her doctorate program in occupational therapy at the MUSC College of Health Professions. “I went for some doctor's appointments before moving down here just to do like, checkups and get my shots up to date and everything,” she said. “And my doctor felt a lump in my throat.”

Horgan found herself moving to a new city and school as well as finding her way across campus to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Horgan met with surgical oncologist Mahsa Javid, M.D., Ph.D., who suggested she have the lump removed quickly. “A week and a half after I met the surgeon, she said we were going to do the surgery,” Horgan said. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have an anatomy exam in a week.’”

a woman in a hospital bed with a mask and hair net gives a double thumbs up 
Bridget Horgan gives a big thumbs-up from her hospital bed. Photo provided

Horgan rescheduled her anatomy lab so she could get it done the night before her surgery. The next day, she woke up and had half of her thyroid, half of her isthmus, which is the part of the thyroid gland that connects the left and right lobes, and the surrounding lymph nodes removed. When the results came back a few weeks later, she learned that the lump that had thrown the start of her graduate school career into a tailspin was a thyroid cancer that forms in the follicular cells and fortunately is very treatable.

“I knew that my type of cancer had a good prognosis,” she said. “It was still a scary experience, being 23 years old, moving 12 hours from home and not really knowing what to expect.”

One year later, though, she’s celebrating. “As of June 15, I am one year cancer-free.” Horgan smiles broadly, recounting her blessings since she has become a regular at Hollings Cancer Center. So far, there hasn’t been any sign of spread to her surrounding lymph nodes, but the worry is always there.

“There is always the stress at any of my follow-ups that they will take another ultrasound or do some bloodwork and find something else,” said Horgan. Despite one other scare in March, when the doctor in charge of her follow-up care, Jyotika Fernandes, M.D., an endocrinologist at Hollings, found something concerning in her lymph nodes, she’s remained cancer-free and knows that the cycle of appointments and extra care will forever be part of this new normal.

“I look at life in the way that I was very privileged to receive the care that I did here,” she said. “Not everybody has that access to care and I'm hoping that I can advocate for other future and current cancer patients — that they can receive that same care that I received.”

Riding for Cancer

Advocate, she has. For the second year, Horgan is leading a team of riders in LOWVELO. Her small cycling peloton of four last year, named “The Training Wheels,” now has grown to 16 classmates looking to help in the fight against cancer — together. “I think some friends were inspired by what we did and also have their own why and their story to tell,” she said. “It’s awesome. Everybody is so passionate about it and has all these amazing fundraising ideas.”

The passion is paying off. The Training Wheels peloton currently is topping the leaderboard in funds raised.

“This is exactly what LOWVELO is about,” said event director Rachel Haynie, of the annual fundraising event whereby 100% of the dollars raised by riders goes to cancer research at Hollings. “Bridget, through her story, has inspired a whole team of people to work together to raise money for a great cause: life-saving cancer research.”

one young woman holds up her phone for a selfie with two friends; all are in biking gear 
Bridget Horgan, center, with friends and fellow occupational therapy students Lindsey Lewallen and Erin Elenz. Photo provided

This year marks the fourth annual LOWVELO event, which will be held Nov. 5. It has grown to include more activities and options for people who want to participate. The longer (23-, 57- and 100-mile) routes will start at Brittlebank Park. The shorter 10-mile Family Fun ride will start and end on the Isle of Palms, where everyone from all routes will join in to celebrate and honor cancer survivors and those who have been lost to the disease. Hollings physicians and scientists will be on hand to talk about exciting research and treatments that are transforming care.

“We plan to have the biggest block party ever,” said Haynie of this year’s finale. “What I love most about LOWVELO is how it gives an opportunity for everyone to raise money for a great cause while bonding to learn what we all can do together to make a difference in a disease that touches so many lives. All our riders, volunteers, virtual participants and stationary cycling participants have their own whys. The day is about sharing those whys.”

A fun new feature this year is a series of lunch and learns to help people to adopt healthier lifestyles to prevent cancer and other chronic diseases. The first one will be held on August 9 and cover the top five nutrition tips. This ties into the theme of LOWVELO as a lifestyle, said Haynie. “It’s much more than a one-day event. We hope that people make new friends and bond as they get out to cycle and be more active throughout the year.”

There are different ways to participate for people of all fitness levels, including stationary cycling classes and volunteering, but for those who want to have a stretch goal and do one of the four routes, there are several training events leading up to the big day that will help to get riders prepared.

Charleston Cycle Chicks, Charleston County Parks and She Tris are partnering with LOWVELO, and participants can go to the website to see upcoming events.

LOWVELO also will be bringing back “Glow Blue Week” on campus at MUSC in August. The event serves as a way to celebrate the cause with MUSC faculty, staff, students and patients. There will be special incentives for anyone who takes on the challenge of being an ambassador for LOWVELO on campus.

Horgan first learned of LOWVELO at this very event. She thought it looked like fun, and when she realized all of the funds raised went to life-saving cancer research at Hollings, she knew she had to be involved.

“I ride in LOWVELO for those who have already lost their battles to cancer, those who are still fighting and for those who haven't even received a diagnosis yet,” said Horgan. “I hope that the money that we raise is going to go toward some incredible research here at Hollings and that this event can kind of spark a change so that one day getting a diagnosis won't be as scary.”