07/28/2013 12:50 EDT

Cancer Fundraiser IRIS Was Born Out Of Brotherly Love (PHOTOS)


The day Francis Jean learned of his brother Remi’s cancer diagnosis, life changed for the Vancouver-based optometrist.

That was back in 2007. In 2011 Jean founded the IRIS Challenge – a cycling fundraiser for cancer research. So far he has raised $137,000.

On July 9, he set off on a 2,000 km ride from Vancouver to Jasper and back again. On his return – likely July 30 – he anticipates he will have raised a further $60-$70,000.

This current trip is bittersweet: Remi is back in Quebec undergoing a new round of chemotherapy.

“When your brother faces something like this you always remind yourself that it could very well be you,” said Jean in an interview from the road somewhere between Blue River and Clearwater, B.C. “Cancer is never really far away from any of us.”

Remi had been diagnosed with lymphoma – a cancer that affects white blood cells, potentially altering the response of the body’s immune system.

“I took it a little personal,” recalls Jean. “I wanted to share the pain with him going through this and help any way I could. The first few days were extremely emotional.”

After spending too much time drowning in information on the Internet, Jean decided what he really needed to do was spend time with his brother.

It wasn’t easy: Jean loved to fish and hunt; Remi didn’t.

Inspiration came one day as Jean was reading an article about a 72-year-old who cycled across Canada. He grabbed his wife’s bike, sped off on a 60km ride, came back and e-mailed his brother.

“I think we can get some good bikes, get a motor home and cycle across Canada,” he wrote.

Remi’s reaction was not exactly positive: “You’re crazy,” he replied.

Months passed before Jean tried again, this time suggesting they cycle to raise money for cancer research. That got Remi’s attention. They decided they would attempt to ride the 6,000 km from Vancouver to their hometown in Baie-Comeau, Quebec. In 2011, Remi’s doctor gave him the green-light to go.

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IRIS Challenge: Photos From The Road

Together the two brothers and their long-time friend Gerald Carrier cycled from Vancouver’s English Bay, through the Rockies, Prairies and the wild sloped hills of Northern Ontario at a pace of 120 km per day.

In Thunder Bay, the trio came across the city’s Terry Fox monument – a nine-feet tall bronze statue adjacent to a breath-taking view of Lake Superior built in memory to the courageous one-legged athlete who inspired Canadians to give to cancer research.

“Remi left early that morning because he was a bit slower than us… and he went to the monument by himself.”

When Jean and Carrier arrived, they found Remi still there.

“You don’t exactly know what you’re going to expect. And once you get there… it’s really hard to even talk. You’re in front of this monument, and you feel the pain that he had to go through.

“You don’t say much.”

After 60 days on the road, the three were greeted by a welcome party in Baie-Comeau.

“I think what Remi proved to us, is that you may get sick, you may face challenges, but it’s not the end of life,” Jean says. “Life is pretty short and we have to enjoy every moment of it.”