Athletic events are often reported from the point of view of the victors, those who finish first. Team N.E.D. (No Evidence of Disease) was not the fastest team in this year's Maui Channel Swim but they can only be described as winners. Team N.E.D. sloughed off sea sickness, worries of tiger sharks, and the option of drinking umbrella drinks on the beach because it was all better than being stricken with cancer and unable to participate at all.
Deciding to Compete
There are those who go to Maui for the sunsets, the whale watching, and the honeymoons. Di goes because her zest for life compels her to swim between the islands. This is Di's story.
After four years of being cancer free, Di's ovarian cancer came out of its sleep to wreak havoc on yet another organ of her body. The disease's relentless cruelty again moved to the forefront of her life, this time affecting her spleen. Cancer's echo would require Di's full attention, to say nothing of what it would demand of her bone density, nervous system, physical strength, emotional fortitude, and day-to-day energy level.
Before Di's spleen was even removed she was looking ahead. There would be time to cry about cancer later, while she was tethered to an IV receiving chemotherapy, she said. At that moment, while her husband and friends gathered around her hospital bed, there was no time to waste and she made the following suggestion: "I need something to look forward to, something to help me leap-frog the next few months. Let's form a relay team for the Maui Channel Swim."
Heads nodded and that was it; done deal.
Training for the Swim
The process of recovering from chemotherapy was "monumental," Di says. The task of reclaiming her vitality was arduous. With her immune system destroyed, she was susceptible to colds, flu, and other airborne maladies and was constantly on antibiotics. She battled fatigue as a function of depleted red blood cells. Some muscles atrophied while she lay nauseous on the couch and others remained sore and weak from surgery.
Becoming physically active again has been emotionally and physically painful, day after day.
"I used to enjoy working out. It's a labor for me now. It's frustrating and exhilarating in the same moment. I'm thrilled to be back to doing what I love, but I know that if my body hadn't been sent to war so many times that I'd be able to do so much better."
And yet, Di doesn't hesitate to refer to chemotherapy as miraculous.
"There are people who say they don't believe in miracles, but I experience miracles everyday. Without chemotherapy, I wouldn't be alive."
Race Day Challenges
When Di's ovarian cancer was first detected in July 2000, she underwent a hysterectomy and six months of chemotherapy. She was cancer-free for four years, but ovarian cancer has a tendency to spread, and she carried the BRCA gene that's often associated with breast cancer. In November of 2004, she underwent a preventive bilateral mastectomy, and pre-cancerous cells were detected in her left breast. An attempt at reconstructive surgery was unsuccessful.
One of Di's concerns about competing in the Maui Channel Swim was wearing a bathing suit in front of hundreds of people. The bathing suits that are created for women who have had mastectomies are not racing suits and are easily distinguished from the bathing suits that will be worn by all the other competitors. Her missing breasts render her circumstance obvious, and sometimes she'd prefer not be associated with cancer.
"I don't like being labeled by cancer. I don't like my patients at work referring to me as the nurse with cancer. I would rather they think of me as smart or caring or friendly. And here I would like to be an athlete, not the swimmer with cancer."
Another concern was how she would feel on race day.
Only days before Di was to fly to Maui, she made a trip to the emergency room, suffering acute back pain and bleeding. She was immediately concerned that her cancer was back. Another option was renal failure, a side effect of her chemotherapy. After two days of extreme discomfort and anxiety, doctors determined she had a kidney stone.