September / October 2008 Issue

Two Survivors Inspire Others

by Bill Volckening

Cancer survivors Judy Strauss of Menlo Masters and Susan Helmrich of New England Masters teamed up to present the Cancer Survivor’s Forum at Short Course Nationals in Austin.

“We really want to see this group become a clearinghouse, form of support and inspiration for other Masters swimmers who are facing cancer,” said Strauss. “We had about 20 to 25 people that came to the forum and shared their stories.” Strauss decided to hold an open forum because of her own experience.

“The article in SWIMMER about Karen Einsidler (I received it a few days before I had a mastectomy) gave me courage and strength,” said Strauss. “When I returned to the pool after surgery, I had no idea what to expect and had a ton of questions. I spent some time contacting different organizations, looking for literature on Masters swimmers returning to swimming, and found very little. The best information that I got was from a talking to Karen Einsidler at Worlds, talking with a teammate who is a cancer survivor, and conversations with Susan Helmrich. In addition to being an amazing person, Susan is a two time cancer survivor, Masters swimmer and friend from college.”

Strauss thought there were several people out there like herself, and if people could pool information and form a network, they could support each other, inspire each other, and be there for others facing cancer.

USMS SWIMMER magazine presents a roundtable interview with both swimmers whose tales have inspired many others.

SWIMMER: What is your personal story of surviving cancer?

Strauss: I was diagnosed with breast cancer just a little over two years ago. I had a lot going for me, first of all it was found very early, it was a relatively non-invasive form of cancer and I was in pretty good shape at the time. Because it was multi-focal I had to have a mastectomy. I did not have to have chemo because my nodes were clear and because all of the tissue was removed I did not have to have radiation either. I had reconstructive surgery that was essentially the same as Karen Einsidler's. Painful injections, more surgery...

Helmrich: I was first diagnosed with a rare form of vaginal cancer at age 21 just after I graduated from Syracuse University, where I received a Title IX swimming scholarship. I was never outstanding, but was a good enough swimmer and was in the right place at the right time. I grew up in Kingston, New York and swam on an AAU team called Stone Dock Swim Club (with Mo Chambers!). I was the first girl to swim on my high school swim team in 1971 (when they would let girls compete with boys in non-contact sports.) Then, 9 years ago, at age 42, I had a rare tumor in my bronchus and had the left superior lobe of my lung removed. That recovery, for swimming, was really, really difficult.

SWIMMER: How did Masters swimming contribute to your recovery?

Strauss: Masters swimming helped not just with the recovery but with the whole treatment process. First of all, I was with Masters swimmers when I got the diagnosis. My friends immediately rallied, they supported me in every way you can think of... brought me journal articles, took me to doctor's appointments, visited me in the hospital and at home, made a poster for me, brought my husband and me meals... sent cards, flowers, books.... everything.

I worked very hard at swimming to get into shape before the surgery. It helped. The day following the surgery my doctor asked me if I could pat my head with my right hand. I showed him that not only could I pat my head, I could reach directly over my head almost in a streamline position. I had almost full range of motion the day after surgery!

I had a modified radical mastectomy on May 18, 2006. Not only was I able to compete at Worlds at Stanford I swam at Pacific Masters Long Course Championships, less than 2 months after the surgery. Having goals and very supportive teammates sped my recovery.

At worlds I had the opportunity to talk to Karen Einsidler and watch her win the 400. It was very inspiring. I also reconnected with Susan Helmrich, a friend from college and a two-time cancer survivor. Conversations with survivors were more helpful than I can express. As far as my doctors were concerned, they had dealt with the cancer. They were concerned with removing it. Masters swimmers helped me heal from the treatment, and the sport helped me tremendously, both physically and emotionally. I really felt like I was being supported by a tremendous number of people. That is healing.

Helmrich: At age 21, I had just finished my senior year at Syracuse, diagnosed with cancer and was treated at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in NYC. I had a 10 1/2 hour surgery, was in the hospital 1 month - this was in 1977. In 1978, I attended the Harvard School of Public Health - where I met Stephanie Walsh (who was coaching the Harvard Women's Swim Team) and soon after joined New England Masters. This group of people was truly amazing and helped me regain my health and confidence through swimming, support and friendship.

As a 42-year old second time cancer survivor - swimming was everything to me - I needed to prove to myself that I was going to be OK and swimming was how I was going to do it. One year, after my lung surgery (3 days in intensive care, 8 days in the hospital) I swam 10,000 meters - this was a huge accomplishment as immediately post-surgery I could barely walk 1/4 mile.

SWIMMER: What was your impression of the forum attendees at Nationals?

Strauss: I was very impressed with the strength of the people that attended the Forum, I was also very moved and very inspired. They were also very generous in sharing their stories.

Helmrich: The forum was amazing and inspiring. People came with all different connections to cancer - survivors of cancer, a parent of a young girl with cancer, people whose lives had been touched by cancer in various ways- it was fascinating and interesting to see who showed up - but totally inspiring as we went around and told our stories - everyone has one!

SWIMMER: What do you hope to accomplish by connecting with Masters swimmers who are cancer survivors?

Strauss: The purpose of the Forum is to collect information, support each other, be an inspiration for others and help those Masters swimmers that are facing cancer. I sent an e-mail to the folks from UT and wanted to share it. I think it says why we decided to do this and what we hope we can accomplish:

Hi Ann, Scooter and Charles,

Thank you for your help. It's hard for me to express how grateful I am for your efforts without sounding over the top... I strongly believe that we will make a difference in the lives of people facing cancer. Two years ago this week I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Fortunately it was found very early and it was a relatively non-aggressive form of cancer. With that said the treatment was still unpleasant and daunting to say the least. The week before I had my surgery there was an article in USMS Swimmer about a woman who had the same kind of breast cancer who was preparing for the FINA Masters World Championships. Because of her generosity in sharing her story I was able to face my surgery with more strength. I met her at Worlds in August and watched her win the 400 free in the 50-54 age group. I'm hoping that by starting this forum we will be able to help others in the same way that she helped me. You are making it possible for this to happen...

Helmrich: I just think the inspiration that comes out of something like this is remarkable. I almost don't think it needs to be or should be limited to cancer survivors - but anyone who has overcome a physical trauma, illness or obstacle and has used swimming to get them through it could be involved. For example, I had dinner with Jeff Farrell one night in Austin, and I had no idea about his by-pass surgery! And did you see his times??? Amazing! I believe these stories are just so motivating and inspiring - I tried to communicate this to my family and friends when I got back and it is one of those things where " you had to be there"!