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Colleen Chapleau
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COLLEEN CHAPLEAU At work, at home, even on her bike, the UI staff member is focused on the fight against cancer.

Cancer changed Colleen Chapleau’s life even before she found out she had it. Now, inside and outside the office, she’s helping others fight the disease.

Chapleau, associate director of the Iowa Marrow Donor Program and Blood and Marrow Transplant Program at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC), started working at the hospital in 1985. Her job has shown her cancer’s impact firsthand.

The staff of the marrow donor program recruits donors and guides those who match with patients through the testing and donation phases. The transplant program also helps patients—some of whom have slim chances of finding a match—deal with life-and-death issues, work that’s shaped Chapleau’s outlook on life.

“It brought me face-to-face with my own mortality,” she says. “To see people deal with cancer makes my problems seem small. I hug my kids more.”

But overcoming cancer has become more than just a job for Chapleau.

She and her parents have been diagnosed with the disease. Chapleau discovered she had two kinds of skin cancers in 2000 and 2002. Her mom is a breast cancer survivor while her dad still battles bladder and prostrate cancers.

Her personal story and the stories of others convinced her to do more to fight the disease. The 50-year-old started recruiting neighbors and friends to the donor program outside work hours. She also turned bicycling, a hobby she took up in 2000, into a cancer-awareness vehicle.

Chapleau’s passion for cycling began when she dusted off her clunker bike to do RAGBRAI, the annual bike ride across Iowa. “There’s something about riding a bike on the rolling hills of Iowa,” she says.

A few years later she was riding alongside seven-time Tour-de-France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong on an eight-day trek from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., organized to raise awareness for cancer clinical trials. She was one of 20 people selected to join Armstrong’s LiveSTRONG Foundation on the 2004 Bristol-Myers Squibb Tour of Hope relay team, which rode more than 3,200 miles.

Chapleau continues to work closely with LiveSTRONG. She was among a group of Iowans who traveled to Washington, D.C., last May to persuade elected officials to dedicate more funding to cancer research.

She has also found a way to combine her cycling and advocacy efforts on a local level. Last year, she helped turn a Bicyclists of Iowa City annual event into a cancer-research fundraiser for UIHC. It raised $50,000 and attracted more than 400 riders. The event will be held again this year on Sept. 20.

Some people draw a boundary between their work and personal lives. Not Chapleau.

“I really don’t see a line between my work and my life,” she says. “It’s a continuous theme.” The personal examples of patients, donors, and colleagues keep her focused on the cancer fight.

“What keeps me going are the people that I meet through working at the hospital,” she says. “After 23 years, I’m still not used to the idea that people are diagnosed with these devastating diseases. We need to do more, and it starts with each person.”

Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tim Schoon

March 24, 2008