**Soh: Jump by Amanda Mercer

 

 

 

 

 

I stood on the swim platform, at the stern of the Sea Satin, a 36-foot Dutch Steel ocean cruiser, shivering and teeth chattering with the frigid 60°f water of the English Channel lapping over my feet and ankles. I was only wearing my navy blue Speedo swimsuit, white silicone cap and green-tinted goggles. There was a red, blinking light clipped to my goggle straps and a green light stick double safety-pinned to the back straps of my suit. It was dark – just past 10:30 p.m. I stared down into the black choppy waters, willing myself to jump back in.

Exactly four months earlier, on March 27, 2012, I underwent a lumpectomy in my left breast. My breast surgeon at the University of Michigan, Dr. Lisa Newman, removed a 2.2 centimeter mass and five lymph nodes. I was 44 years and a day old.

Standing on that platform, I could hear our boat pilot, Lance Oram, yelling that it was time to go. I began hyperventilating. I knew we were still on track for the world record, although our margin was slowly diminishing. I knew my husband, Todd, was waiting for me at the beach in Dover. I knew there were hundreds of people back home following our swim. I knew my teammates had given everything they had in them. I knew if I didn’t swim we would be disqualified and it would all be over.

I felt as if all my usual confidence and conviction had been drained away. I felt small, childlike. I was beyond exhausted.… I was nauseated. I felt hot, while at the same time chilled to the bone. I stared into that dark, horribly cold, uninviting water. My breathing was shallow and rapid. I knew that this was the moment that would define me. Not for the sake of anyone else. Just for me alone. This moment was the culmination of everything I had been through to get here. On the back of a boat, thousands of miles from home, in the dark of night, 16 days out of chemo, I asked myself, “Am I strong enough?”

When, months earlier, I received the call confirming that the mass in my left breast was ductal malignant carcinoma, one of the first things that went through my head was the English Channel. For nearly two years, five other women and I had been training to swim a 42 mile, two-way relay crossing of the English Channel to raise awareness and money for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) research. We were doing this primarily in honor of my friend and neighbor, Bob Schoeni, who had been diagnosed with ALS four years earlier. Our goal was also to break the world record of 18 hours and 59 minutes.

While struggling with the onslaught of emotions that came with a cancer diagnosis, particularly all the unknowns, I was also angry that it would happen now – just four months before we were to leave for England. The swim and the chance to make a difference in the fight against ALS had become incredibly important to me. The thought of withdrawing from the relay was devastating.

Within days, I realized that to get through this I needed to flip the situation around in my head. I told myself that it was good that it happened now. That my fitness level was probably the best it had been in 15 years. That I had the support of my amazing teammates, a community of passionate ALS supporters and my loving family. Perhaps more importantly, I told myself I had a purpose; something to occupy my mind and keep the dark thoughts away; something to get me out of bed; something to inspire me; something bigger than cancer.

Dr. Newman met with me on March 26th to discuss the recommended course of treatment. Due to the type of cancer (stage 2; triple negative; level 3 aggressiveness) as well as my relatively young age, my team of doctors recommended eight courses of chemotherapy spaced two weeks apart. The first four would be the cocktail of Adriamycin doxorubicin and Cytoxan cyclophosphamide (A/C), and the final four of Taxol.

I brought a calendar with me to my appointment and pointed out to Dr. Newman that if we could start the chemo two weeks after my lumpectomy, I could finish just in time to get to England, swim the Channel and then do my radiation when I got back. Dr. Newman responded quietly, “I discussed your desire to swim the Channel with the doctors on the tumor review board, and I’m sorry, but no one believes that you will be able to do it. The fatigue from the chemo will be too great.”  I looked at my husband and thought they don’t know me.

I started the A/C chemo two weeks after my lumpectomy. I went in believing that because of my fitness level I would suffer minimal side effects. I also thought I could power through with a mind over matter way of thinking. I was terribly wrong. This was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I could feel the poison coursing through my body. I couldn’t imagine leaving the house, or even my bed, let alone swimming the English Channel.

Nine days after the first infusion, although still feeling lousy, I left the house for the first time in order to swim. I only swam 1000 meters, and even though I was very slow, it felt so good, I cried. By the 12th day I felt almost normal and was back to swimming pretty fast. I once again believed that I could do it.

My next round was worse. The third round was unbearable. The doctors and nurses said that I was having an unusually bad reaction, but nothing they prescribed to relieve the symptoms made any difference. The Taxol was better overall, but the fatigue was taking its toll. The bone aches that came with the Taxol combined with the Neulasta injection (to increase white blood cells) were severe for about 48 hours – a bit longer with each treatment, but I could get in the water two or three days more per cycle.

As the swim grew closer, my teammates got stronger and faster while I was growing weaker. I knew in my head that it was the medicine breaking me down – literally killing parts of me. But my heart didn’t buy it. The chemo hadn’t weakened my competitiveness or my aspirations.

I finished my final Taxol treatment on July 11, 2012; we left for England on July 21st. We began our swim at 5:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27th.  My teammates and I, following the Channel Swimming Federation Regulations, rotated through every hour. About two hours after my second swim, the overwhelming fatigue and nausea hit. I was so miserable I didn’t think I could walk for 15 minutes… let alone swim as hard as I could for an hour in frigid water.

My teammate Emily, a second-year surgery resident, came down to the galley to check on me. She looked me in the eye and said, “You know it’s going to be horrible. It is going to be horrible, but then you’re done. You can do this.”  At 10:35 p.m., I stood on that swim platform asking myself if I could.

I jumped in. The first few minutes were agonizingly cold. For a short while after that, I actually felt okay. But then the cold began to seep into my core; the fatigue was settling in.

I tried to push the negative thoughts out of my head. I thought over and over again that this was nothing compared to what Bob was going through, his body slowly deteriorating from ALS. My body would heal and recover from the ravages of chemotherapy; without finding a cure for ALS, Bob’s never would. I thought of my husband waiting for me on shore. I counted my strokes, willing the minutes to go by. It was horrible. Then it was done.

Emily got in after me and finished the swim by running up onto Shakespeare Beach in Dover. We finished in 18 hours and 55 minutes – breaking the world record by four minutes. Setting the world record was incredible and a bit surreal, but the real triumph for me was that I was able to get back in that water. Cancer didn’t stop me. It may have slowed me down, but it hadn’t beaten me. I jumped in.

 

 

Amanda Mercer, nee Schuster, is the mother of two children and two large husky-mix breed dogs rescued from the streets of Indianapolis. She is married to Todd Mercer, whom she met at Michigan State University where they were varsity swimmers and captains of their respective teams.

Amanda received her law degree from Wayne State University and upon graduation became an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Washtenaw County, Michigan. She has also worked as an enforcement representative for the National Collegiate Athletic Association, a mediator and a stay-at-home mom. Currently, Amanda has her own law practice, which specializes in mediation and contract law.

This article is an excerpt from Amanda’s forthcoming book about her experience with cancer and swimming the English Channel. (She is actively seeking a publisher). Amanda lives with her family in Ann Arbor, Michigan. More information on Amanda’s English Channel Crossing and her efforts to raise awareness and funds for ALS can be found at www.ChannelForALS.org.

Stand up to Cancer blog

August 27, 2012