Todd Kemper recalls a saying that goes something like this: if it wasn’t for the darkness, you could never appreciate the stars. His darkness came in late 2014, when his soon-to-be wife, Linnea Mowat, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer at the age of 30. Kemper, as well as Linnea’s family and friends, were spun into a devastating state of helplessness as the relentless cancer consumed a lovely, loving woman. Linnea faced the disease with a braveness and positivity that was almost incomprehensible to Kemper. She did everything she was supposed to do. She was the “perfect patient.” But the cancer was too aggressive, and Linnea passed away in September 2016 at the age of 32.
“I asked a nurse, ‘What’s it going to be like?’” says Kemper, remembering the last days he spent with his partner in the palliative care ward at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital, contemplating for a brief moment what sort of life exists after loss. “[The nurse] said, ‘It’s just like a bomb goes off in your life, and you’re going to spend a lot of time just trying to pick up all the pieces.’”
That was the darkness. For Kemper, that is and will always be the hardest part of the story. That breaking, he says, opens you up to an authenticity, a rawness that changes your perspective, your purpose and your relationships.
“You go through something like that, and without even knowing it, it reveals the friends in your life who are going to be the stars.”
In the months before Linnea’s passing, Kemper found a pamphlet for the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer presented by Evraz, a two-day, 200-kilometre bike ride through the Alberta Rockies that raises funds for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. Kemper registered a team, which he named Linnea’s Legion, bought a new bike, and met his minimum fundraising goal of $2,500 in less than 24 hours.
Word of his plan spread quickly through friends and social media, and that year, Linnea’s Legion rode with 16 members — comprised of the couple’s friends, family and co-workers — and raised more than $50,000. The escalation from idea to tangible research funds was “mind-blowing” to the couple. They were overwhelmed by the support.
The following year, 2017, was the first ride after Linnea’s passing. It was a difficult time for Kemper and the team, which had grown to 24 riders, but Kemper never doubted that the Legion would continue.
“I think the whole world would have forgiven us if we gave up this cause because we lost her,” he says. “But there’s still 4,000 women in Canada who are going to find out they have triple-negative breast cancer this year. We may not know them, but we’re there for them.”
To date, Linnea’s Legion has raised more than $160,000, funds they know will go directly toward research and compassionate care in Alberta. The team now has more than 30 members, most of whom have a connection to Kemper or Linnea, and all of whom share a meaningful bond in their mutual commitment to conquering cancer.
“You feel so helpless when someone you love has a diagnosis. Getting on the bike, turning the pedals and raising the money is a sense of empowerment.” —Todd Kemper
Sebastian Makowski went to junior high school with Linnea, and has been with Linnea’s Legion since the beginning. With a pervasiveness that can leave you breathless, cancer has impacted his life, too — his wife, Keren, was recently diagnosed with gestational trophoblastic carcinoma, an uncommon, curable pregnancy-related cancer. Kemper had never met Makowski before the latter joined Linnea’s Legion, but the team has since become a family of allies who support each other through laughter and grief. That’s why Kemper, who hadn’t been back to the hospital since Linnea’s death, accompanied Sebastian and Keren for her very first chemotherapy session at the Cross.
“I walked back in through those doors. I did it so I could support my teammate,” he says.
Mara Erickson, one of Linnea’s — and now Kemper’s — closest friends, says that being part of Linnea’s Legion has changed her life in ways that are both practical and profound.
“I can’t imagine not knowing some of these people,” she says.
The team stays connected all year long, keeping a steady rotation of group training rides, coffee dates and pub nights. But its function goes well beyond that. Erickson and Linnea were the exact same age. She says it’s hard not to consider what her personal fight would look like, if she were ever diagnosed with cancer.
“Where would I be ready, and where wouldn’t I be?” she ponders, then adds, speaking of the team, “I do know that I would have an immediate support system.”
In January of this year, Linnea’s Legion gathered together for a mid-winter party at Cartago in Edmonton. It was a chance to connect team members, sponsors and the extended network of support that has surrounded the group from the beginning. The date, January 20, was also Linnea’s birthday — she would have turned 34. Her legacy was celebrated with cupcakes, champagne, and camaraderie that was formed in the deepest grief and bolstered by the act of doing something, anything, for a greater good.
“Everyone has their own goals, but we’re all in it with the same general sense that we’re doing something that is helping,” says Kemper. “You feel so helpless when someone you love has a diagnosis. Getting on the bike, turning the pedals and raising the money is a sense of empowerment.”