How a brain tumor helped a cyclist change his life

In 2019, Chris Baccash was diagnosed with a a slow-growing malignant brain tumor. In 2021, after completing a grueling 100-mile cycling race up the Rockies, he started graduate school at Penn for a master’s degree in positive psychology.

In December 2019, then-27-year-old Chris Baccash woke up in the hospital after a seizure to find out he had a diffuse astrocytoma—a slow-growing malignant brain tumor. The recommended course of action for the professional cyclist: two surgeries, three weeks apart with neurosurgeon Donald M. O’Rourke at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) to remove as much of it as possible.

Chris Baccash after a cycling race.
Chris Baccash, feeling blissful moments after finishing the 2021 Leadville 100-mile bike race. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

While he strives for positivity, there have been many difficult days, Baccash says. For example, in October 2021, when he made the decision to discontinue a clinical trial he had hoped would remove the residual tumor because his tumor had continued to grow; in January of 2022, when he went in for a third surgery knowing he couldn’t have any visitors due to COVID-19; and most of 2020, when he was largely isolated from the people he cared about. But he’s been able to acknowledge and honor the sadness while expressing immense gratitude for the life-affirming moments that have happened since his diagnosis.

After that third surgery, in the new Pavilion at HUP, to address the continued growth of his tumor, Baccash underwent seven weeks of proton radiation therapy at the Abramson Cancer Center’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center under the care of radiation oncologist Robert Lustig—which “was painless, fascinating, and instilled a lot of hope for me.” He recently began a year of oral chemotherapy, after which he is hopeful to have many years free of medical intervention.

Baccash wasn’t thrilled to have cancer, but he was interested in how this “imposed pause” in his life could present some new opportunities.

“I knew that my situation was going to take a while to get corrected and I would have a chance to reprioritize,” he says. “It’s rare that we get these opportunities to pause and stop the show. I thought, ‘This is an opportunity to change my life.’”

In 2021, Baccash started graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, pursuing a Master of Applied Positive Psychology, centered on the science of well-being. It is a subject that had long captivated his interest, and the more he read, the more he felt compelled to dedicate his life to the field. Baccash graduated in May with a Master of Applied Positive Psychology, just a couple of blocks from where he has had his surgeries and treatments.

This story is by Daphne Sashin. Read more at Penn Medicine News.