FAIRBANKS - Chris Calaprice sat on a purple Victory motorcycle parked next to a giant purple camper at the Harley-Davidson Farthest North Outpost Saturday afternoon as his crew grilled burgers and cooked beans in the parking lot.
Alaska is the 45th state he has visited on a nine-month, 42,000-mile journey aimed at spreading awareness and increasing funding for pancreatic cancer (purple is the color of pancreatic cancer and 42,000 is the number of people diagnosed in the United States every year). But unlike some joy rides, Calaprice has to get chemotherapy every two months while on the road to make sure his cancer stays in remission.
The seven-year cancer survivor and his entourage will hit every state to ride in events like Sturgis, give speeches and spread the word on the street, in parking lots or on stage.
Calaprice and his wife, who live in Santa Barbara, Calif., began the trip because they believed awareness and funding of pancreatic cancer was far too low, compared to other kinds.
"Every cancer is different," he said. "People think everyone dies from pancreatic cancer."
It is known as one of the deadliest forms of cancer, resulting in death within one year for 75 percent of those who are diagnosed. The five-year survival rate is only 5 percent for all stages of disease. Yet pancreatic cancer only receives a tiny fraction of cancer research funding.
In an effort to change that, the Calaprices started a nonprofit that fused advocating for a cure with their love for motorcycles. They poured their retirement funds into a giant camper, got funding and support from motorcycle maker Victory and others, and hit the road. In addition to riding an Iron Butt (or 1,000 kilometers in 24 hours) and dodging caribou on the Alaska-Canadian Highway, they have engaged with tons of people across the country.
"I think the most amazing interactions are the people you meet every day," Calaprice said.
In Texas, a solder who had recently returned from Iraq donated his last $20 to the group and led them back to the freeway. In Alaska, he met Iditarod female champion and breast cancer survivor DeeDee Jonrowe.
"Seeing Mt. McKinley pales in comparison to spending four or five hours with DeeDee and hearing her story," Calaprice said.
They've also met a surprising number of people who have been touched by pancreatic cancer, said Jennifer Calaprice, who rides her bike along with her husband.
"It happens way too often," she said.
But Calaprice, a former software engineer, has not let these odds get him down. In addition to conquering cancer twice, when he was initially diagnosed in 2003 and relapsed in 2004, he also survived melanoma and lives with diabetes. Though the former U.S. Army Ranger is undoubtedly tough, he gets tired and worn down along the way, his wife said.
"We try to stay down for two weeks when he has chemo, but one time he rode 1,200 miles in three days within the week of getting chemo," she said.
His main message is hope, Calaprice said.
"If we have hope, we'll make hard choices. If we have hope, we'll work harder to find a cure," he said. "Survival is a decision you make every day."