2013 was not a good year for David Hazard. In fact, "it was absolutely the worst year" of his life, he said.

The year started off with a friend of 25 years dying of pancreatic cancer. Then his ex-wife lost a battle to lung cancer in July and his aunt died of liver cancer in the fall. Those were just three of many relatives, friends and acquaintances cancer took from Hazard's life last year.

"It was a brutally bad year," Hazard said. "We lost so many people that were close to us to cancer. It was almost mind-boggling."

As he tried to figure out a way to honor the lives of those he lost, especially his ex-wife, he decided to ride a bike around Massachusetts to raise money for cancer research.

Hazard will be one of six New Canaan residents joining the country's largest athletic charity event next month: the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge bike ride that will wind through 46 towns in the state on Aug. 2 and 3.

This year, nearly 6,000 people will join the 35th annual ride, which raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Many of those riders have been touched by cancer in one way or another.

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In fact, of the 5,800 riders this year, 300 either have or have had cancer, according to Jackie Herskovitz, a spokesman for the PMC.

"We all have a story and, unfortunately, most of them are sad stories," Hazard said.

July 3 marked a year since his ex-wife, Cynthia Lufkin, lost an eight-year battle with cancer. Hazard and Lufkin had been divorced for more than 10 years, but they remained very good friends, he said. The two had a daughter together, Schuyler, who just turned 17.

"Cynthia passed away from a myriad of cancers, but it started with breast cancer," Hazard said.

Shorty after her diagnosis, he said, Lufkin became very involved with cancer-related organizations. She was vice chairman of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation's board of directors.

The organization recently established the Cynthia Lufkin Fund to help provide resources for leading research projects on breast cancer.

Though most of the money raised at PMC goes to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, participants can request to divert the funds to a different organization. So Hazard, who's a mortgage banker with Greenwich-based Mortgage Master, said he would divert his funds to the BCRF, which actually donates to Dana-Farber.

In 2013, the PMC was Dana-Farber's largest single contributor, and the event raised $39 million, more than 50 percent of the Jimmy Fund's annual revenue, according to Herskovitz.

The Jimmy Fund is the fundraising organization for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

When the Pan-Mass Challenge started 35 years ago, 35 cyclists raised a little more than $10,000 for Dana-Farber, according to the PMC website.

Since then, the ride has developed into the most successful athletic charity event and has raised more than $414 million. Race organizers have set a goal of $40 million to be raised for the 2014 race.

"PMC riders are not focused on how fast they ride, but how much money they raise," Herskovitz said.

Average riders will raise $6,000, Herskovitz said, though the minimum is different for a one-day rider versus a two-day rider.

The two-day riders must raise a minimum of $4,500.

Hazard's goal is to raise at least $5,000.

"Here's the beauty of the PMC money: It's seed money," Herskovitz said. "You need to pay the researchers before you can develop the idea enough before you can say to the government or a private funder, `Hey, this can work.' "

Herskovitz said the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has received more than $1 billion in federal funding because of the research the money from PMC supported.

"The whole environment and spirit is incredible," Herskovitz said. "This is one weekend out of the year that people are doing the right thing and coming together for a common goal."

Beth Dempsey -- a Stamford resident who owns Images & Details, 71 Elm St., New Canaan -- is riding for the second time this year.

One of her friends died of lung cancer in March. Katha Diddel Sussman, of Greenwich, was a triathlete who competed in international championships even while undergoing cancer treatment.

"She was a big triathlete. She was an inspiration," Dempsey said.

When Dempsey, who was not really into exercising, joined the ride last year she learned it wasn't that tough of a ride.

"I wasn't a big biker. I was just riding around my neighborhood," she said. "But honestly, it's all training, as long as you're relatively healthy."

Hazard said he used to bike in the 1980s, but it had been 25 years since he stopped. He said he has lost 15 pounds since he started training in April.

"I signed up for the longest possible route," which is 190 miles, he said. "I've never felt better. It's been a great experience for me so far."

Dempsey said the PMC is a good way to support a good cause while exercising and honoring someone's life.

"It's a really great cause," she said. "It's a combination of a ride and a charity. It's quite powerful and moving."

Staff writer Megan Spicer contributed to this report.

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson