Leawood 18-year-old rides in breast cancer charity she started at age 12

Megan Rowe slipped on her red motorcycle helmet, tears misting in her eyes behind its visor.

At age 18, Rowe of Leawood wasn’t exactly sure how she was going to feel Sunday morning as she hopped on the back of her father’s silver Yamaha and — for the first and last time — took part as a rider in the “Real Bikers Wear Pink” breast cancer charity motorcycle ride that she began seven years ago when she was only in middle school.

“This is my last ride,” Rowe said to a throng of bikers, her voice breaking with emotion. “I’m so thankful to share it with all of you.”

She stood in a fluorescent pink T-shirt in the parking lot of Sam’s Club on 135th Street in Overland Park only moments before, at 9:30 a.m., the engines of more than 75 bikes rumbled to life for the 100-mile ride.

“This event has really changed my life,” she continued, “the way I see the world, the way I see the ability of individuals, no matter if they’re 12 years old, to be able to bring people together to make a difference.”

Rowe was only 12 when, while at sleepover at a friend’s house, the friend showed her a locket containing a picture of her biological mother, who had died of breast cancer. Around the same time, Rowe’s father, Brad Rowe, now 49, had gotten his first motorcycle.

In those same weeks, she also heard of a neighbor who had had a double mastectomy and a classmate whose mom was a breast cancer survivor. And she learned that her own grandmother had had the disease.

“I was talking to my mom about it,” Rowe recalled before Sunday’s ride, “and we were driving behind my dad on his motorcycle and he was wearing a pink shirt. We were joking about it and saying, ‘You know, real bikers wear pink.’”

That’s when Rowe hit on the idea to organize motorcyclists on a ride to support breast cancer.

“My mother said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, then let’s do it,’” Rowe said.

Some 60 bikers rode that first year, with Rowe, her parents and others getting sponsors and, at night, passing out fliers at biker bars.

The first year, she raised $1,500. Over the last seven, she has raised more than $22,000 earmarked for research through the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation.

Now Rowe is off to college at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Rowe figured that because she was going away to college, this year’s ride would be the last. She had never actually ridden in the event, being so busy with working and organizing the event.

But on Saturday, Rowe said, she spoke to Charles Bell, 35, of Overland Park, who in 2011 founded T.A.P.S., which stands for Traffic and Public Safety, Kansas City. It’s a private security company in Lenexa that he began in honor of his late grandfather’s military service. Bell has agreed to run the charity ride. This year marks the third year that T.A.P.S. volunteered to provide road escort and security for the event.

“Thankfully, and this just came together yesterday Real Bikers Wear Pink will live on,” Rowe told the bikers to cheers and applause.

So the riders straddled their bikes.

“My mother-in-law had breast cancer,” said Doris Sarver, 53, of Lenexa. “She was a 25-year survivor. I’m also doing it to support Megan.”

Rowe said the event has touched her and changed her in ways she never expected. She has celebrated with those who have survived breast cancer and shared tears with the families of those who did not.

“I have a lot of people who come up to me and say thank you,” Rowe said, adding there was one man three years ago who especially sticks out in her mind.

“He was a huge, burly guy, with this great beard, a pretty spectacular beard. Wearing leather and tattoos, on the outside he looked really gruff,” she recalled.

“But, before he left, it turned out his wife was with him. He gave me a huge hug and started bawling on my shoulder. He looked up at me and said, ‘Thank you for doing this. It is people like you and events like this that have given me more time with my wife.’”

On Sunday, with her arms around her father, and both wearing pink, Rowe rode off.