Article image

by Judy Carr Belletti

January 1, 2006

A special relay team in the Maui Channel

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

This is Di’s story. It’s a story of survival, enthusiasm, and love of life.

When Di’s ovarian cancer came out of its sleep to wrack havoc on yet another organ of her body, the disease’s relentless cruelty again moved to the forefront of her life. 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. Yet before Di’s spleen was even removed she was looking ahead. There would be time, Di said, to cry about cancer and that would be while she was tethered to an IV receiving chemotherapy. At that moment, while her husband and friends huddled around her hospital bed, there was no time to waste and she made the following suggestion:

“You guys, 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 Event

Di describes the process of recovering from chemotherapy as “monumental.” The body she handed over to her oncologist in October of 2004 was simply not the same one she was given back the following February of 2005. The task of reclaiming her vitality was arduous. With her immune system destroyed, Di was susceptible to colds, flues, and every other airborne malady and she has been on antibiotics three times in the last six months. She battled fatigue as a function of depleted red blood cells. Some muscles atrophied while she lay nauseous on the couch and others remain sore and weak from being cut during surgery. Becoming physically active again has been painful—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 would be able to do so much better.”

And yet, Di does not hesitate to refer to chemotherapy as one of God’s miracles.

“There are people who say they don’t believe in miracles, but I experience miracles everyday. Without chemotherapy I wouldn’t be alive.”

Challenges Confronting Di

When Di’s ovarian cancer was first detected in July of 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 Diane carried the BRCA gene that is often associated with breast cancer. In November of 2004 she underwent a preventative bilateral mastectomy. Pre-cancerous cells were in fact 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 with a full compliment of body parts. The bathing suits that are created for women who have had mastectomies are not racing suits and would be easily distinguished from the bathing suits worn by all other competitors. Her missing breasts render her circumstance obvious and sometimes she would simply rather 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 Di 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. Di was immediately concerned that her cancer was back. Another option was renal failure, a possible side effect of her chemotherapy. After two days of extreme discomfort and anxiety, doctors determined Di had a kidney stone.

“My greatest concern was how I was going to feel physically. I hoped that when I woke up and my two feet hit the floor that I would feel well enough to get on the boat and swim.”

The Maui Channel Swim

As an organized event, the Maui Channel Swim first occurred in 1972. The swim starts at Club Lanai, a resort on the island of Lanai, and crosses the Au Au Channel to Black Rock at the Ka‘anapali Beach Resort on Maui for an approximate total of 9.5-miles of open water swimming. This year’s 61 entries hailed from the United States, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Canada, and the Dominican Republic. Most people compete as part of a 6-person relay team with divisions delineated by gender and the combined age of the team members. Every year there are both ex- and future Olympians in the field as well as Masters world record holders.

The backdrop of Maui provides a decidedly relaxed feel to the event. The captain’s meeting, the race itself, and the after-race party all started late. With no qualifying entry requirements, the motivation for participating varied widely—some wanted to swim fast and some wanted to enjoy the day, and both inclinations were welcomed. Competitors were asked (nicely) to avoid being overly competitive simply for the sake of competition since the beach towels given to the fastest teams are hardly collector’s items.

So why did Di push herself to recover in only six months from a surgery and chemotherapy to swim in the open ocean?

“I want to live, not exist, and to compete in this event is living. It’s an accomplishment. It will be fun to do something that 99% of the human population will never do.”

Di’s initial 30-minute swim was not easy. She dove off the 34-foot trimaran that escorted Team N.E.D. through the channel, waited for her teammate Val to swim to her, and began negotiating a southern swell while wind blew from the north. It was a confounding and disorienting situation.

“I was just trying to stay afloat. It was a stroke by stroke effort. I just couldn’t get a rhythm.”

And Di strives for a rhythm in her life. She would like to lead “a boring life” where she could work, go home, and walk her dog. She would rather not be interrupted by illness.

During the Maui Channel Swim Di would rather not have had to swim through rough seas. The swells were so large that she couldn’t see Maui. She had to rely on the escort boat for direction which she found aggravating.

“Strategy is a big part of my life. How am I going to stay healthy? Other people don’t have to think that way, but it is a constant issue in my life. What’s my strategy? How am I going to keep this cancer away? What treatments am I going to use? What foods am I going to eat? What vitamins am I going to take? I have to plan. I don’t just wake up and live; I have to think about it.”

On this day, though, Di had to forego strategizing and simply follow the boat. She also became seasick during her first swim.

“I had to just keep my head down and get through it.”

And she did. Di climbed aboard the escort boat nauseous and tired but triumphant. Her 30-minute leg was complete and subsequent legs would be ten minutes in duration.

Open Ocean Swimming

On race day sunlight glistened across the surface of the Au Au channel and shot crisscrossing sunbeams below. The water was a clear, bright blue yet provided no diversions; there were no fish to see or whales to hear, just an infinite blue abyss offering a rollicking dare.

Swimming competitions usually pit swimmers against a clock, but open water swimming measures an individual’s ability to fare against nature. Ocean conditions are highly variable and challenge swimmers to adapt, adjust, or comply with the whims of imperceptible forces. While that challenge is often seductive to athletes, what of the dangers?

“Sure, I thought about sharks. It’s not that I think the worst, but I know that bad stuff happens when you least expect it. I know how fragile life is. For me not to think about sharks would have been atypical.”

“There is constant anxiety once you are diagnosed with cancer. Just because the chemotherapy is over doesn’t mean the emotional stuff is over too. You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“Crossing that channel was scary. The water was choppy and I didn’t want to get pulled under. But you know what, my life is scary. It takes courage for me to live. There are some days when it feels like I have to cross a big body of water just to make it to tomorrow.”

Team N.E.D.

On this day, though, Di was part of a group confronting a scary situation and that was a comfort.

Di says that the most surprising thing about surviving cancer is the transformations in her personal relationships. She has become closer to some people and drifted apart from others.

“I’ve been sick a lot in my life and there are people who simply can’t handle being around someone who is sick.”

Team N.E.D. was comprised of people Di described as able to “hang with cancer,” yet it was friendship that brought them to Maui, not disease. They are three married couples from the San Diego area who range in age from 39 – 54. They are an active group by anyone’s standards and as individuals they had their own challenges in competing in the Maui Channel Swim. Chuck, a helicopter pilot for the San Diego Police Department, agreed to this venture out of love for Di, not because he liked to swim. It was only after airline tickets to Maui were purchased that he reluctantly ventured to the ocean to face 62 degree water and a red tide. Worries about his preparedness for the race were fortunately unwarranted; he swam like a champ.

With more than four hours on the clock Black Rock came into view and Team N.E.D. approached the shores of Maui. The team wanted Di to swim their last leg so that she could run up on the beach to the finish line through the throngs of cheering spectators and other competitors.

“Everyone being in consensus that I would finish the race for us, I think meant more to me than actually finishing the race. I felt each of my teammate’s eyes on me. I knew they were watching. It was a good moment.”

“When I started to swim into shallow water I knew I was going to make it.”

Di’s face erupted into a smile as she said, “It was such a good feeling! It was like getting the results of a good blood test—when the doctor tells you that there’s no evidence of disease. It was just like that.”

This month's article is by Masters swimmer Judy Carr Belletti, an instructional designer within the field of educational technology. Belletti is in the process of writing her first novel. The article is a human interest story about a cancer survivor competing in the Maui Channel Swim, a USMS sponsored race between Lanai and Maui which took place September 3, 2005.