I’ve approached most of my 49 years of life with the same competitive spirit I bring to the sport and passion I love; swimming. I was 11 years old and racing with my local swim team, The Eastern Queens Blue Devils when I had my first awakening to the fragility of life.
It was the same year that I was going through the awkward changes that accompany puberty and being aloof pre teen, I was also quite pretentious and downright obnoxious around other children. Cancer was about to humble me. While at one of my many swim meets I had found a lump in my right collarbone area. Not exhibiting and symptoms it was dismissed by my pediatrician as part of of my body changing and left until a walk in urgent care doctor noted it after I was treated for an ear infection and I was subsequently taken to a general surgeon.
I come from a family of athletic Italian hardheads. Stubborn, proud, loving but full of insecurities and at a time when Cancer had such a taboo stigma, when the results came in that the tumor in my neck was Hodgkins lymphoma there was an immediate retreat into secrecy. No one should know. Of course there was the worry that people would look at me and think negative thoughts ( I still carry this paranoia and sometimes find it hard to say the word CANCER) but also the fear that I would be treated differently. Since my cancer was early stage I was treated initially with 3900 cobalt rays of radiation to the mantle region (chest and neck area) as well as the abdominal area. I had a staging lap prior to this where I was cut from sternum to pelvic region and my spleen was removed. That surgery would forever change my body and abdominal wall and leave me with a long scar that is still apparent today 34 years later. During that surgery a part of bone marrow was scooped off my left hip also leaving a marked difference in my side.
The radiation caused oral issues in my mouth including sores and bleeding, scoliosis in my spine, burning on my skin and degenerated muscles in my neck ( called pencil neck syndrome). What it didn’t do is kill the tumor in my chest and I was diagnosed with a relapse 3 months after initial treatment.
It’s a strange feeling to have the epiphany of your mortality at the age of 12. I reacted to my parents’ crying and talking about sending me to other doctors for experimental treatments like I was watching a tearjerker Hallmark movie. Was this me? Were they crying over the fact that they thought I was going to die?
I was taken to two well known doctors at a Long Island hospital and I credit them with saving my life. Dr. Kochen ad Dr. Weinblatt were a power team that had decided to treat me with a high blast chemotherapy known as ABVD. As the meds were administered and the doctors shared how well they were knocking out the tumor in my chest, I was feeling like my body was being battered to the point of near death. Five hour infusions every 2 weeks with hours of vomiting and not being able to pick my head up, the loss of all my hair and the pains in my bones and gastrointestinal system made me feel like I was wasting away. And that’s how I appeared as well, shrinking to 90 lbs with a wig on my head that looked like a coconut and trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy while still attending middle school and getting made fun of on a daily basis by children who are naive or insensitive to another child’s issues, and would much rather just see them aesthetically and enjoy targeting them in jest for their amusement.
I walked away from that second relapse with a cure. I was grateful, blessed and invigorated. I had my second chance and I wanted to LIVE. I went on to high school and became a bit rebellious wanting to reclaim my beauty and feel loved ( my insecurities were now tremendous with a scarred body and having been bald for a good part of middle school).
I continued to swim. I continued to teach it and love it. That beautiful elixir of water. It was my Linus blanket that I have my mother to thank for. She was the initiator and introduced me to it while working her job at the local YMCA years before. My sister and I followed her to work and were assistants in her classes. I became a fish and as I grew and walked away triumphantly from my 2 battles with Hodgkins lymphoma, I felt I was growing that mermaid tale.
Fast forward in time 12 years after my Hodgkins diagnoses. I had graduated college and was working in NYC at and advertising firm. A random self body check on my right breast uncovered a hard spot near my right armpit. After two misdiagnosis and a biopsy later the determination was invasive right ductal carcinoma, stage 1. This would mark my third cancer diagnosis and my second chemotherapy protocol for a cancer coupled with a mastectomy at 25 of the right breast. And I was more determined than ever to help others, and to LIVE.
When I was on the swim blocks during my competitions I would always assess the competition. The girls who would engage in “smack” talk would just empower me more. I wanted to WIN. I knew I could WIN. I only saw the WIN. I’d visualize it. I realized I brought that same passion to my health battles. I was in the zone. Only positive. I saw that finish line. I was getting there. First.
I went on to get married and have two children after the right breast cancer and was counseling at the Adelphi breast cancer hotline on Long Island as well as doing PR work for cable stations, a spot on Montel Williams, and channel 7 news. Anything I could do to help empower others and get the word out on breast cancer and how it was affecting not just older women but women of younger age brackets, empowered me. And still I swam. I had gotten a job managing a swim program in Bayside for children ages 5 to 18 as well as received my certification as a NYS swim referee. The water was still my comfort. I bathed in its healing qualities on my emotions and my physical body..
Eight years after my right breast cancer diagnosis and after having my second son, I was diagnosed left breast invasive carcinoma. The year was 2006. I was now 33 and had two young sons and a dissolving marriage with an abusive, alcoholic husband. I knew it was time once again to ascend that swim block and visualize my win.
I was treated for the third time in my life with a chemotherapy regimen. My hair fell out, my body was bloated and achy. I had now had another surgery to remove my left breast followed by reconstruction. And I swam. I kept my mind in that WIN zone. My father would remind me all the time to focus only on the good and that my thoughts translate into things. I was going to get through this and I believed it. (the word “BELIEVE” is now etched on may lower back with my father’s name running through it).
Here I am in 2022. Im 49 and my sons are 19 and 20 I started my own business at jewarriorfit.com to share my passion of water fitness and swimming and the element that carried me through it all, beautiful water. I am AFAA certified as a group fitness instructor, a WATERART certified water fitness instructor, a lifeguard, and a certified pool operator. I live every day with gratitude for this wonderful gift we call life and know that every drop, like water, is precious.