Instead of walking with the rest of my NYU graduating class at Yankee Stadium on May 15, 2009, I was 3,000 miles west in California, where I’m from, receiving my first dose of chemotherapy. I was missing the moment I’d dreamt of for years: hearing my name, walking across the stage, receiving my diploma, taking pictures with my friends in Washington Square Park. But there would be none of that. Instead, I was hooked up to a wall with IVs and being treated for a disease that was considered fatal up until a few years prior.
Just a month earlier, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare systemic blood cancer that starts in white blood cells and affects the lymphatic system. Most commonly found in young adults, there are 2.7 cases per 100,000 men and women a year, and there isn’t a lot known about what triggers it.
I had been struggling with so much injury and unexplained illness since the previous summer that I was almost relieved just to have a diagnosis. While my immune system fought the growing cancer, I experienced continuous sinus infections, night sweats, and aggressive fevers. Just a sip of alcohol would trigger unbearable pain in my upper back where nerves were being impinged as the cancerous mass spread into my lungs (yeah, that’s a pretty big problem for a college student). I later learned that this was a “classic” symptom in .01 percent of all people with Hodgkin’s. The doctor assured me it would only be a few months of outpatient chemotherapy before I’d have a full remission.
My NYU swim coach, Lauren Beam, had been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer the month before, and offered some advice: “Whatever you do, stay positive.” And so, I pretended everything was normal: swimming occasionally and studying for the LSAT while undergoing treatment.
The Road to Recovery
By September, I had completed that first cycle of chemotherapy and was ready to get back to normal for real. Except the chemo proved ineffective against my cancer and my scans had been significantly misread. My plans to take the LSAT would have to take a backseat; the battle for my life had just begun.
On the morning of February 18, 2010, nurses came into my room at UCLA Ronald Reagan carrying two little infusion bags full of stem cells and singing “Happy Birthday.” But it wasn’t my birthday. I had just completed high-dose chemotherapy, the effects of which my body would endure over the next unknown number of days until the stem cells took root in my bone marrow, regenerating a new-and-improved immune system—my so-called second birthday. In reference to my blood type, one of the nurses remarked, “B positive, be positive!” I immediately recalled what my coach Lauren had told me months before: Be positive. I’d need those words as I endured hair loss, pure exhaustion (yet simultaneous insomnia), and the inability to fight any form of bacteria or disease—I literally had no immune system for several weeks.
A year later, I had completed radiation and was released from treatment. There truly was a lot to be positive about. That is, until I found myself on a plane back to New York for my coach Lauren’s memorial service. She had lost her cancer battle at 34 years old. Emotions high, I had wanted to say “thank you” to her family—for all the advice and motivation their daughter had given me—but I couldn’t find the courage to lift my eyes to theirs at the service. Then, I felt the urge to do something momentously positive to inspire other young adults with cancer and let them know someone is fighting for them. I decided to swim the English Channel.
Training for the Biggest Swim of My Life
Now, I know I said I was a swimmer. But I was a sprinter, not an endurance athlete and certainly not a cold-water marathon ocean swimmer. And I wasn’t in shape (thanks, cancer). Still, both my longtime swim coach and my oncologist were on board without hesitation. The training began from ground zero, Lauren’s voice encouraging me to practice before dawn every morning.
It took two years of intensive training and detailed preparation before I finally got my chance to swim the Channel. I was in the water six days a week, swimming upwards of 60 miles each week beginning at 5 a.m., splitting the distance between the pool and open water, and balancing that with a full-time job. Two to three days a week, I spent an additional hour doing strength training in the gym with my athletic trainer, Brian Finn. There was also a heavy emphasis on embracing the cold (wetsuits are not permitted in official Channel swims). That means driving with the AC on, swimming in the ocean through the winter (as much for the cold as for the bigger swells and wind chill), taking cold showers, and even things like urinating and drinking carbohydrates while swimming endlessly in freezing water. Yeah, it was a lot.
The English Channel Swim
After facing inclement weather during my first attempt in 2012, I was forced to return home and commit for the following summer. But I kept training. And in 11 hours and 14 minutes on August 28, 2013, I swam the Channel and reached the shores of France, amid 14-mph winds and 3-meter swells, becoming the first Italian woman to do so. (Watch clips of the swim in the video below.)
The swim was unlike anything I could have imagined. First off, I had practiced breathing to both sides to save my hip flexors from stress. But thanks to the direction of the wind, I was taking in too much water on my left and therefore limited to my right. Plus, the boat, which had my crew on it, was pitching with such ferocity that I thought it would hit me. Worse, the colossal tankers in the shipping lanes looked like they could run me over without anyone on deck batting an eye.
One of the sayings in the Channel is: “You swim 19 miles to the start and then it begins.” As the crow flies, the English Channel is 21 miles wide. But it’s really a game of tides. You can time the start to work to your advantage, but the tides change about every six hours, so you can’t predict what’s going to happen as you approach France. Which is why I ended up swimming in place for about three hours off the coast, having covered nearly 28 miles, the finish line in plain sight. The current was essentially pushing me back out to sea. It was like playing an emotional game of Red Rover! But amid the tears and the pain, I knew that I was fine. After chemo, simply walking to Starbucks was a challenge. Being able to swim the English Channel was pure bliss.
In the two years since, I’ve put my career and family first, moving across the country twice and getting married to the love of my life in Pittsburgh, which I now call home. As fate would have it, we met at a marathon swimming event in Arizona, and after less than 14 days spent together (which included a 52-mile ultra-marathon run in west Texas, naturally), Darren Miller and I were engaged. He too is an accomplished endurance athlete and active philanthropist, so we’re both constantly looking for new ways to challenge ourselves and engage with the community. I’m not sure what the future will hold for us, but I have a feeling I’m not done with English Channel just yet.