I get asked a lot why I swim the distances I swim. Most often my answer is a simple “Just because” with the occasional joke of “well it keeps me off the streets” or “what else am I going to do at 4:30 AM? Sleep?” Many marathon swimmers respond to such a question with “Because it’s there.” My Anacapa Island to Oxnard swim (12.4 miles) last year was just to see if I could do it. My Catalina Island to San Pedro swim (21 miles) in August was also originally to see if I could do it.
On 15 August, I’ll be jumping into the Catalina Channel with a completely different reason and motivation. A real one that I’m beyond proud of. In May 2014, I met a very charismatic and inspiring man named David Yudovin at the City of Hope Crab Feast. He was an accomplished marathon swimmer and the way he talked was so inspiring that it made me want to jump out of the window of the Del Rey Yacht Club and start swimming. He was a bonafide legend and so human at the same time. He never forgot to help others and his mind was always on charity. Unknown to the naked eye, he was also a leukemia survivor. You knew that you were in the presence of greatness.
Then in March 2015 news of his unexpected passing spread through the marathon swimming community. He had suffered a massive heart attack while running on his treadmill, part of his training for a Maldives swim. Marathon swimming had lost one of its brightest stars and the City of Hope had lost one of its biggest sponsors.
A few weeks later my friend Carol emailed me if I was interested in doing a relay to carry on David’s work for City of Hope as he had planned to do a relay to raise money for them. I responded with one word: “Catalina?” and after confirmation, I immediately said “Sure!” It slightly interrupts my own Catalina solo swim training as that’s a few weeks later. Some things are more important though and I can adjust my own training schedule. Besides, what better training for a solo Catalina swim than actually being in the very same channel?
It’s an incredible honor to be part of the team that is helping carrying on David’s work. It’s also made me remember how many of those that I’ve known and loved who have lost their lives to cancer. It affects people of any age.
My Uncle Bill was perfectly healthy until a routine annual check-up revealed that he had leukemia. He went through the cycle of radiation and chemotherapy down to needing a bone marrow transplant. He had a few matches which 2 had dropped out, one dropping out the week that the transplant was supposed to take place. It was an emotional rollercoaster for me and I can only imagine what it was like for my uncle. I became extremely angry at these people who I’ll never meet who had registered as bone marrow donors and selected to save someone’s life to only back out at the last minute. Why give false hope to another human being that you can save their life? How would you feel like if you were the patient? Don’t you think of others or is your name in the registry so you can feel good about yourself even though you never intend to actually follow through? At the time I was recovering from my own major surgeries and wasn’t eligible to register for the bone marrow registry. 366 days after my last pelvis surgery and the first day I was eligible, I registered for Be The Match, the national bone marrow registry. Most of the time I wear a blue bracelet with a silver envelope on my left wrist that’s a “SWAP bracelet”. SWAP stands for “Sealed With A Promise” and sold by Be The Match with proceeds going to them. The bracelet is to show your promise to donate bone marrow if called upon. My snarky side says that they must have that because so many people get the once-in-a-lifetime call that they can save someone’s life only to say “no.”
My Uncle Bill and me
I also donate platelets almost weekly at Stanford Blood Center even though I hate needles so much that my body freezes up to the point where nurses have to tell me that if I don’t relax, I will break the needle. It helps people like my uncle and only costs me two hours of my time. My hemoglobin levels run on the lower side and I occasionally register as very anemic (around 11 mmHg when normal is 12+ mmHg; Stanford only takes 12.5 mmHg which involves some tricks on my part to get it high enough). I take iron pills daily and do eat meat and other high-iron foods. Donating platelets is important to me though so I try to maintain that on a regular basis.
I also got the shock and sad news when a childhood friend, Jennifer Nathan, passed away in 2013 from ovarian cancer. I knew she had been battling it for awhile and had supported her in various events also, including the Cycle For Life. I knew her conditions were worsening and her friends had organized a schedule for people to come visit her. I had just moved to Pasadena at the time and put myself down to visit a couple of weeks later when I was going to be back in SF next. Then the news came a few days later that she had passed away at the age of 36. The last time I had seen her was when our paths crossed in Malaysia in 2007 during her “Jen Travels The World” tour. We had been friends since our figure skating days and I remember sleepovers at her house in Hillsborough. I went to my first concert (Paula Abdul and Milli Vanilli) with her, her twin sister Michelle, Megan Clark, and my sister. Their house was so big that I’d get lost in it. I remember her getting eggs stuck to a frying pan and saying that she’ll just soak it in hot water and soap, a method I still use today. She actually did 2 around-the-world tours and I loved reading her updates and seeing her photos. I can still hear her laugh as it was so distinct. She lived more in her 36 years than most people do in a lifetime.
That wasn’t the first time that I missed seeing a loved one before cancer won. My grandpa was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 and I was in denial that he was dying. I had marked in my planner when I’d be visiting both of my fraternal grandparents over the next year. I was down in Lake Arrowhead at a figure skating training center and about to leave for the airport to visit him. My dad was already out there. He called me right before I was to leave for the airport telling me that my grandfather had just died and to not come. I broke down in tears.
Around the time of Jen’s death I also had my Uncle Ed pass away from cancer. There was the additional challenge that he was in Peru. I had been talking with my cousin Melissa about visiting in November 2013. She sent me a message in April or early May saying that he wasn’t doing so well and that I needed to come sooner. I couldn’t come Memorial Day weekend because I was already going to Chicago for my cousin Kristi’s baby shower. I decided on 4th of July weekend. Uncle Ed died a couple of weeks before my trip. Having lost by my Uncle Ed and Jen within a week of each other was an indescribable feeling. It made me realize also that you really do not know when is the last time you’re going to see someone.
I am really tired of loved ones dying on me from cancer right before I’m on my way to see them too.
There are many more that I’ve loved and lost to cancer that will always be in my heart. My failure to include them in this entry doesn’t mean that I love them any less. I think about them often though and miss them terribly.
Currently I have 3 loved ones who are battling cancer which is 3 more than I want in my life. My surrogate grandmother Jackie has bladder cancer. I’ve known her and her husband Joe for so long that I don’t remember meeting them. They lived a couple of blocks from my grade school so were always our emergency contacts aside from our parents. They had photos of us on their fridge (some are still there). I call them our surrogate grandparents since our grandparents lived in Arkansas and Peru. Our grade school had this cruel “Grandparents Day” where you brought your grandparents to school and the whole day revolved around having them there. I was one of the few who didn’t have my grandparents living right down the street. Joe and Jackie filled in when they could and if they coudln’t then my mom let me stay home rather than face the embarrassment of being one of the few kids without grandparents there on Grandparents Day. I always thought they’d be around. Joe passed away earlier last year. It’s too weird for me to think of Jackie also not being around. They are two of the sweetest people you’d have ever met and I feel like they deserved a better way to go out than this.
My surrogate grandmother Jackie and me
My Aunt Oji also has bladder cancer which she’s been responding to treatments and is currently in a recovery process. I was able to make it down to Lima during her treatments to visit with her though and am at least happy that she’s been there every other time and hope she’ll be cancer-free soon enough.
My Aunt Oji and me
My cousin Sean’s wife had breast cancer and was determined to be cancer-free. She and Sean both got healthy by eating better and exercising. Julie started doing a of the Susan G. Komen charity runs/walks. In February she had a seizure coming home from work. Her cancer was back with a vengeance. It had spread to several other places and the outlook was dismal. She’s in her 40s with 2 young children. My heart sank when I got the news. She’s part of my Chicago clan which I’m especially attached to that part of my family. I’ve attended almost every single one of their big events (weddings, funerals, bridal/wedding showers, baby showers, anniversaries, etc.). Not to sound corny but none of them deserve to die from cancer.
So to be asked to help raise money for cancer research and treatment? Sign me up. I can’t take any more emails, texts, or phone calls telling me that I’ve lost another loved one to cancer.
I’m flying down to Los Angeles on Monday, 20 July in the morning. My friend Carol is picking me up at the airport and then we’re meeting everyone else at the dock that evening to head out to Catalina Island. Around midnight, a person from each of the 3 relay teams will jump in the water to start our tandem relay. We will support each other and take turns swimming in one hour intervals until all 3 teams make it across the channel. In the process we’ll have helped make David’s vision of a Catalina relay to raise money for City of Hope a reality. And hopefully come closer to finding a cure once and for all.
I can’t think of a better reason to swim.
If you’d like to support my swim, you may donate at http://www.swimacrossamerica.org/goto/kprebil or contact me.