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Grandfather Bikes Across Country To Raise Money For Pediatric Cancer Research, Raise Awareness Of Cancer Concerns In Beverly Area

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A 69-year-old grandpa took a 4,000-mile bike ride recently – all to raise money for pediatric cancer research while drawing attention to a corner of the Southwest Side that's long voiced concerns about high cancer rates.

CBS 2's Tim McNicholas took us along for Willie Winters' journey.

"We camped most of the time," Winters said.

Winters made a 74-day trip from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. After a journey like that, riding the streets of Beverly feels a little easier him.

"When we got to the Rockies, it was great seeing them," Winters said. "But then we realized, you know, we've got to climb over those things."

It was no easy task for anyone — let alone a 69-year-old. But for Winters, the journey was about more than health, more than a scenic vacation.

It was about a boy named Pat McNamara, who died 10 years ago.

"I certainly thought about him, and I think he helped me get up a couple of those passes for sure," Winters said.

Pat battled a brain tumor for most of his 13-year life.

After he died, his family launched a nonprofit called Pat Mac's Pack, which has raised more than $1 million for research at Lurie Children's Hospital - and for families struggling to pay the bills as their kids fight cancer.

"Real steep decline," Winters said. "Scared the hell out of me."

Winters documented his journey on Instagram and encouraged people following along to donate to Pat Mac's Pack.

He wound up raising about $15,000 – much to the delight of Pat's dad, Tom McNamara.

"Just a tremendous achievement both athletic- and endurance-wise," McNamara said. "Then the fact that he chose to honor our son and raise money for Pat Mac's Pack, it means a lot."

Like Winters, the McNamaras are from Beverly - where people have long voiced concerns about cancer cases in kids and adults.

The state's Public Health department studied Beverly and other nearby neighborhoods from 2005 to 2014 and found higher than expected counts of lung cancer in white men and women and prostate cancer in white and Black men.

Many families have called for more research in Beverly, Mount Greenwood, and Morgan Park.

"The proper studies haven't been done to try to pinpoint what has been happening in this area, but I do think there's been too many kids in this area that have been inflicted with cancer," McNamara said.

The concerns did catch the attention of the University of Chicago, which started studying the area a few years ago as part of a project called COMPASS.

The goal is to identify possible cancer risk factors through interviews and blood, urine, and saliva samples with participants.

But researchers say they need more samples to draw conclusions on the Southwest Side, and the pandemic put that part of their project on pause.

"We have every intention of going back to Beverly and Mount Greenwood and continuing to enroll people and increasing our ability to study exposure in the area." Said Brisa Ashbrook, an associate professor at the Department of Public Health Sciences at the U of C.

As for Winters, he finally reached the Pacific a few weeks ago. And he's already gearing up for his next ride.

Pat Mac's Pack is holding a group bike ride Sept. 17 from St. Barnabas in Beverly to Michigan City, Indiana.

Registration fees will go to brain tumor research at Lurie Children's Hospital.

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