For Luis De La Aguilera, embarking on a seven-day kayaking journey from Key Biscayne to Key West wasn’t on his bucket list like running with the bulls in Spain was. But after being introduced to Steve O’Brien a year ago at Christopher Columbus High School, things changed.
De La Aguilera, the president of Total Bank, helped raise $10,000 in 10 days for Castaways Against Cancer, a group that has been kayaking since 1999 to raise money for the American Cancer Society (ACS) during its Relay for Life.
As the Castaways crew began planning its 14th annual 165-mile kayaking trip, 52-year-old De La Aguilera was recruited to join the team. He has been training for the journey since last October and has lost 20 pounds in the process.
“I feel prepared, and I know that I am in great hands,” he said. “If I am anxious about anything, it’s the weather, because wind, waves and tides can make a big difference. But there is nothing we can do about nature other than pray.”
De La Aguilera’s training has consisted of biking, swimming, weightlifting and kayaking. He tries to paddle at least seven to eight miles once or twice a week and sometimes paddles up to 14 miles. “I’m building up endurance and getting ready,” he said.
Since 1999, Castaways Against Cancer has donated more than $400,000 to the ACS, a nationwide community-based health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer. According to the ACS, half of all men and one-third of all women will develop cancer during their lifetime.
Currently, more than one million individuals are diagnosed with cancer each year. De La Aguilera’s aunt lost her battle to cancer, and one of his executive assistants died three months ago after fighting cancer for nearly 10 years.
“It’s hard not to find the person who knows somebody who is dealing with cancer or who has lost a battle to cancer, so when we reach out, everyone is great about supporting it,” he said. “Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It could happen to anyone at anytime.”
O’Brien, the founder of Castaways Against Cancer, created the kayaking event after his mother and grandmother lost their battles to lung cancer. He originally joined Relay for Life, a 24-hour charity event, but then realized it wasn’t enough.
After witnessing his mother’s chemotherapy and radiation sessions and remembering how physically and emotionally draining they were, he came up with the idea of starting a weeklong kayaking trip as his form of Relay for Life.
“We did this to try to emulate what a person has gone through when they go through chemotherapy or radiation,” he said. “On the kayak, it is exhausting. You’re out there all day long, it’s hot, and you’re uncomfortable. If we get in trouble, we just have to pull in, come ashore, and the ordeal is over. But people that go through chemo and radiation, it’s an endurance contest.”
At one point, the 59-year-old heart attack survivor had his own scare with colon cancer, but early detection caught the problem before it began. Besides losing his mother and grandmother to the disease, he also lost his uncle. Fortunately, his dad is a cancer survivor.
In the United States, cancer remains the second-most common cause of death, accounting for one in every four deaths. Although there are more than 100 types of cancers, they all begin the same way — abnormal cell growth that can attack one part of the body, or spread and attack several parts of the body.
Fifteen other paddlers will join O’Brien for the 2013 journey, which kicks off Saturday. The group will leave Virginia Key around 7 a.m. and head for Elliott Key, where they will camp for the night before continuing their trip. On other nights, the group will stay in hotels. They will finish kayaking on June 15 as they paddle into Key West about 2 p.m.
O’Brien is no longer the captain of Castaways Against Cancer, but he continues to paddle with the group. Since the start of the event in 1999, he hasn’t missed a trip. He never thought “in his wildest dreams” that this journey would become so popular, but he wants it to continue for years to come.
“Someday, if and when I have to lay the paddles down, I’d like to see this thing go on beyond my years,” he said. “ I think it’s going to be a long haul. But I’m very optimistic we’re going to beat this terrible disease.”
Lung cancer has been the type of cancer that has affected O’Brien most, but he wants to eliminate cancer as a whole — not just one form of it. The ACS puts a lot of money into funding cutting-edge research that could eventually lead to a cure, which is why O’Brien decided to raise money for the organization.
Although cancer has impacted O’Brien and his family in many ways, he said he is fortunate that so many wonderful things have sprung from the fight against it.
“The friends I have made have made it well worthwhile,” he said. “In fact, it has been very fulfilling that so much good has come out of something that’s just so terrible. We’re going to paddle until they find a cure, God willing. [Cancer patients] are in it for the long haul, and these people, in my mind, are my heroes. They are warriors.”
To donate to Castaways Against Cancer, visit www.castawaysagainstcancer.com. All proceeds go directly to the American Cancer Society.