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A second life: Andy Sninsky's tale of cycling and survival

Alia Parker's picture
Multiple myeloma sufferer Andy Sninsky cycling the Mojave Desert. Cycle Traveller

At first glance, it may not appear to be such a huge feat: a seasoned 65-year-old American cyclist riding along the Sydney Harbour foreshore at Circular Quay. But this is no ordinary cyclist. Andy Sninsky suffers from multiple myeloma, a type of incurable bone marrow cancer. If he falls from his bike – even in the most seemingly harmless of accidents – his brittle bones will be crushed, his riding days will be over and his quality of life diminished..

But still, Andy rides on; he loves seeing the world by bike and through his riding he hopes to bring greater awareness and support to a type of devastating cancer doctors still know so little about. With 1,000 new diagnoses a day globally, myeloma remains 'rare' but is recognised as one of the fastest expanding types of cancers in the Western world.

“I used to be 5'11, now I'm 5'6 and a half,” Andy says over coffee down by the harbour. These days he uses Nordic walking sticks to move about to take the pressure off his compressing spine, but he says riding a bike is much kinder to the bones in his back, so despite the dangers, he prefers cycling, that is as long as he rides in his Crocs, which don't cramp his feet. He leans down and removes his Crocs, showing me the pedal indents in the soles with a laugh.

Andy and his sister Patti are sightseeing the city on bikes kindly lent to them by Jane Burgess, a Myeloma support nurse at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. They're then off to Melbourne to do the same followed by Cairns. It's quite a tame trip for Andy, who normally takes on quite epic adventures detailed on his Crazy Guy On A Bike blog.

First life

Andy Sninsky and his cycling crocs. Cycle Traveller

His first cycling adventure was back in 1968, when he and a friend Terry Mathews rode 4,300 miles (6,920km) from his home in Compton, California to New York City, swinging down by Florida along the way. He did it all again in 1976, riding Bikecentennial for the US Postal Service, a coast-to-coast bike ride to commemorate the bicentenary of the signing of the US Declaration of Independence. Bikecentennial was a defining moment in cycle-touring history. The route is still in existence, now better known as the TransAm and ridden by hundreds each year. Bikecentennial was so popular it also gave birth to the Adventure Cycling Association, a not-for-profit group that has gone on to have enormous success in promoting cycle touring in the United States.

Andy's adventurous spirit doesn't stop at cycling; for years he lived and worked in Nicaragua, running a white water rafting business until being diagnosed with Myeloma in 2009. Once diagnosed, the average life expectancy for myeloma sufferers is three to five years. Four years in, Andy has survived treatment through the most aggressive form of myeloma and is looking happy and healthy, something he partly attributes to cycling. He currently weighs in at 172 pounds (78kg), but at his worst during treatment – which included taking Thalidomide, a drug which caused a high percentage of birth defects during the 1950s – his weight dropped to a startling 119 pounds (54kg).

What is Multiple Myeloma?

Multiple Myeloma is a cancer of plasma cells – a type of white blood cell – where the abnormal cells accumulate in the bone marrow. Unlike tumours that can be removed then cured with chemotherapy or radiation, there is currently no way of completely ridding the body of myeloma.

“We're losing a member here a member there once every other month from our support group,” says Andy. “Because it doesn't have a cure, they work on it as a chronic illness, but that doesn't mean it won't flower, and once it flowers and blooms as a cancer, you need to get treatment of some kind.”

There are two key phases of multiple myeloma: 'smouldering' and 'flowering'. Many with smouldering myeloma are unaware that they have the cancer as the abnormal cell count is too low to create symptoms. Blood tests are the first indicator that something is wrong in this phase. Flowering myeloma is when the cancerous plasma cells increase and symptoms become evident. This phase is broken down into Stages I, II and III, which represent the level of cancerous cells in the body. Andy reached the worst stage – stage III – before treatment helped him lower the abnormal cell count. But for myeloma sufferers, the threat of the cancer cells flowering is always there.

Andy, Patti, Jane and Harry at Sydney Harbour. Cycle Traveller

Those whose myeloma has flowered often notice symptoms such as anaemia, cracked ribs, back pain, possible renal failure and bone disease. The cancer is most common in men above the age of 50.

It is not known what triggers myeloma, but research into the cancer has been making headway and treatments have improved dramatically in the past decade. In the meantime, Andy rides in hope of a cure.

Gesturing across the table to Harry Cooper, who has had smouldering myeloma for the past 20 years, Andy laughs, “We're the healthiest looking sick people you've ever seen”. Harry, who is also very active in his local myeloma support group, has travelled into town to meet Andy and it's true, they both look remarkably good. But despite their seemingly good health, their bodies remain captive to the mysterious disease.

“What we're trying to do just sitting here today, Harry and I are trying to inspire each other,” says Andy. “He's 78 and doing very well, I'm 65 and doing very well, and we want to continue on doing very well and we want other people not to give up.”

Andy has dedicated his “second life” to raising awareness of multiple myeloma and funds for medical research into a cure. If you would like support this cause, donations can be made to the Myeloma Foundation of Australia.

Images from top: Andy Sninsky cycling through the Mojave Desert in 2011, two years after being diagnosed. 2. Andy and his cycling Crocs. 3. Andy, Patti, Jane and Harry.


As a recently diagnosed MM patient Andy and Harry are a great inspiration to fellow sufferers .Thanks guys positive stories like yours give me great hope for a long and hopefully reasonably healthy future with this disease

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