MONDAY, March 4, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- At the top of his game, it's hard to imagine New York Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich as anything other than the picture of health. But the 25-year-old is a cancer survivor.
In 2009, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a particularly rare form of bone tumor with few treatment options. Rarer cancers often have fewer therapies because the research money just hasn't been there to seek out new cures.
So, Herzlich, along with stars such as "Saturday Night Live" comic Seth Meyers and "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi, donned bike shorts Sunday and joined in the annual "Cycle for Survival" fundraiser for rare cancer research at New York City's Rockefeller Center.
"I'm here," Herzlich said, "because I know what having this kind of rare disease is all about."
Launched in 2007, "Cycle for Survival" is hosted nationwide at outlets of event founding partner Equinox gyms. Each year the event attracts thousands of self-sponsored teams of volunteers -- the famous and not-so-famous.
Sunday's New York City event, staged at three of Equinox's facilities, also included "Survivor" winner (and cancer survivor) Ethan Zohn; Olympic figure skating silver medalist Sasha Cohen; and Huffington Post editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington.
Together they jumped on indoor stationary bikes and, in four-hour shifts, spun wheels with one goal in mind -- to fund research being conducted at NYC's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
The name "rare cancers" might even be a misnomer. According to the U.S. Rare Diseases Act of 2002, enacted to help boost research funding, a "rare disease" is anything affecting less than 200,000 people a year. This means that many lymphomas and subtypes of colon cancer might be considered "rare," as well as every form of cancer affecting children.
"Cycle for Survival" started with the late Jennifer Goodman Linn, who was affected by a rare soft tissue sarcoma and passed away in 2011. Jennifer and her husband Dave organized the event as a practical response to the fact that although, in sum, rare cancers account for more than 50 percent of all cancer diagnoses in the United States, individually such diseases affect too few patients to attract significant research dollars.
"I first got involved four or five years ago," SNL's Meyers said at the event. "Dave [Linn] and I went to Northwestern [University] together, so I've known him for 20 years. And even though Jennifer ultimately didn't make it, it's really special to continue to come out and participate and honor her memory."
Herzlich's participation is even more personal.
"I was a senior in college, and I was told that I would never be able to walk again," he said. Ewing's sarcoma typically occurs among children and young adults, affecting the long bones of the arms, legs, pelvis or chest. "Actually, if I had had it 20 years ago they would've amputated my leg immediately," the linebacker said.
He added that the same disease took the life of a good family friend just this past year.
"But I'm in full remission now," Herzlich added. "Cancer-free for three years. And I'm playing football. And that's only because of external organizations like this one, that raise money and attention for these very rare diseases that wouldn't get the kind of federal funding that more common diseases, like prostate or colon cancer, would get. So I feel it's really important to come and show my support."
The organizers for this year's "Cycle for Survival" said the event is being hosted at 10 different Equinox locations from coast to coast, and will be attended by more than 13,000 volunteer cyclists. So far, the annual event has raised nearly $31 million for cancer research ($12 million in 2013 alone), 100 percent of which has gone toward the funding of 53 different Memorial Sloan-Kettering rare cancer research programs.
Beyond his personal connection to the Linns, Meyers said he believes the effort is enriching on many levels, both public and private.
"Of course, it's great that an event like this draws awareness to awful diseases that don't get enough attention," he said. "But I also think that we shouldn't underestimate how really inspiring it is for the people who get involved. I think that people who come down here to participate get a lot out of it. Because a cancer diagnosis can make people feel helpless. And this is a way for them to do something and feel empowered."
Find out more about rare cancers and their treatment at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.