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Forty-two cyclists pedaled for cancer research at Saturday's spin-a-thon in Salem. (APRIL GUILMET PHOTO)

Spinning for a cure

Salem spin-a-thon is pedaling toward a cure

SALEM — Whether he's pedaling across the countryside or atop an exercise bike in the local gym, Windham resident Shawn Mullen never rides alone.

Mullen, a five-time Pan-Massachusetts Challenge cyclist, said he carries his memories of Tina Vitale, a close family friend who lost her battle with breast cancer several years ago, on all his journeys.

Vitale's memory was kept alive on Saturday during Mullen's fifth annual indoor spin-a-thon at the Workout Club and Wellness Center in Salem.

Forty-two cyclists from around New England pedaled inside the gym for several hours, each one there to honor a loved one affected by cancer.

"I'd always thought I could never ride 190 miles over the course of two days," Mullen said. "But then I thought of Tina, about my father who battled cancer. And that ride didn't seem nearly as long."

After a successful run in the August 2009 charity ride through 46 Massachusetts towns, Mullen knew he couldn't stop there.

In 2010, he became a licensed spinning instructor and began holding the annual spin-a-thon to raise additional funds towards cancer care and research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through the Jimmy Fund.

The event had humble beginnings.

"When this idea was first hatched, it wasn't nearly what it is today," Mullen said. "We had about 16 riders here."

Last year's spin-a-thon raised $15,600, with 26 cyclists participating.

Last weekend's event raised well over $33,000, honoring those fighting cancer or who have lost their battle.

Duxbury, Mass., resident Maura Cesarini died of GIST, a rare and incurable gastrointestinal cancer, earlier this year. Maura's husband, Mike, road in his wife's memory on Saturday, with the couple's two daughters Michaela, 12, and Bella, 10, cheering from the sidelines.

Mike Cesarini said he's ridden in the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge three times and has raised over $96,000 for cancer research over the years, with emphasis on research being conducted by Boston oncologist Jonathan Fletcher, one of the doctors who treated his wife's cancer.

Windham fourth-grader Nick Barbaro's story has a happier ending. The little boy (who also happens to be Mullen's neighbor ) survived neuroblastoma thanks to the treatments being pioneered at Dana-Farber.

Fletcher thanked the cyclists and survivors for supporting his work, noting that government funding for cancer research has been greatly diminished over the past few years, making charity events such as the spin-a-thon and Pan-Massachusetts Challenge even more crucial for finding a cure.

"We all need heroes in this world," Fletcher said of Maura Cesarini. "She was an extraordinary woman. In the worst of circumstances, she always found time to serve others."

Fletcher said a new trial for medications treating GIST would begin soon.

"Over the next three years we're convinced there will be cures for those whose cancers have metastasized beyond surgery," he said.

In the front of the gymnasium, a bicycle stood without a rider, strewn with pink roses and angel wings.

Tina Vitale, who died January 2010, had always hoped to one day be well enough to ride alongside Mullen in the challenge. That didn't happen, but more than three years after her death, Tina is still inspiring others. On Saturday, her husband, John, was perched on an exercise bike, pedaling away for his first ever spin-a-thon.

"She's with me still, on each and every ride," Mullen said. "She's still touching so many lives."

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