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Why fighting cancer is like learning how to swim

­­­­­Before cancer, I did not know how to swim, but I am learning. Journeying through cancer three times has taught me how.

Recently, I was asked to speak at a luncheon for Swim Across America, an organization that supports cancer research. Swim Across America holds an annual fundraising event in Dallas for cancer research and clinical trials at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center. Dr. Carlos Becerra, my doctor, had graciously given my name. Within the next couple of days, I received a telephone call.

Words could not express my enthusiasm — how honored I was to be asked and to be able to give my testimony as a natural killer (NK) cell recipient.

Related: Why I swim for cancer research

But, giving my testimony made me recall experiences of my Faith Walk being challenged to the core. It also made me realize that in life, there comes along a word that can turn you around and that can challenge you, that will put crazy situations all in your head. That word came three times for me — cancer.

Therefore, this is my testimony saying, “You can swim!” I learned that swimming lessons involve breathing — not only learning how to breathe but also kicking with your legs and stroking with your arms.

I think at one point I could not breathe anymore. It felt as if someone had taken the breath out of me. The reality of it all was that I was drowning because I did not know how to swim.

Therefore, this is my testimony saying, “You can swim!” I learned that swimming lessons involve breathing — not only learning how to breathe but also kicking with your legs and stroking with your arms.

This is how cancer taught me to “swim,” starting with breast cancer. These are lessons about swimming but really, more about life.

Learn how to breathe.

Faith always teaches me to look for the benefits of life lessons. This required a radical shift in my thinking.

The first thing is breathing! In 2008 came the diagnosis of breast cancer. It really crushed my heart. I could not have imagined that this was the start of my lesson on learning how to swim. This taught me how to inhale and exhale, making sure I knew when to take a breath and when to let go — just having basic tools and using those techniques.

It’s the same with facing challenges. With challenges, you have to get your tools out.    

Take it stroke by stroke.

The swimming lesson in the year of 2015 taught me how to complete a swim stroke. I went to my doctor’s office for a follow-up visit after having beat breast cancer and underwent a CT scan. As a result, doctors discovered a tumor on the upper part of the cortex of my liver.

It was then that I was diagnosed with adrenal gland carcinoma. I asked myself, what is that?! Just what a girl needed, but okay. Let’s take it one stroke at a time.

Faith always teaches me to look for the benefits of life lessons. This required a radical shift in my thinking.

Related: How faith and prayer helped me battle stage 4 ovarian cancer

Don’t give up.

In 2017, my oncologist sent me to have a liver biopsy. I was not feeling well from what seemed like food poisoning, so after teaching summer school, my husband and I went to the clinic for the biopsy procedure. Never will I forget this! The pain was real. What was supposed to be a simple procedure became painful. I was bleeding with three hematoma on my liver, one being the tumor.  

From the clinic, the ambulance took me to Baylor University Medical Center. Not yet knowing the degree of what was fully happening, the doctor admitted me to the hospital. After my hospital stay, my husband Vernon and I met with this gentleman, who told me I did not have to drown.

In essence, be courageous! For there is hope. Secondly, do not give up. Every lesson learned teaches perseverance, instills patience and brings support — you are not alone!

Dr. Becerra became my “swimming instructor.” He gave me proper lessons on swimming.  Each lesson taught me how to navigate from the deep waters of cancer back to the shallow. One lesson was to repeat the stroke and breathing exercise until I was able to make a stroke with each arm and complete a breath. Next, was to pull your arm straight down and make a circular motion. Turn your head to the right and draw a new breath through your mouth. Turn your head back and exhale through your mouth or nose.

In essence, be courageous! For there is hope. Secondly, do not give up. Every lesson learned teaches perseverance, instills patience and brings support — you are not alone!

Related: What I’ve learned watching my husband fight pancreatic cancer

Through the support of Baylor University Medical Center and Dr. Becerra (thank you for not throwing in the towel), I became an NK cell recipient — a type of immune effector cell therapy. My donor was my brother. I am happy to say that since September 13, 2018, I have not received any chemo treatment. I am still being monitored, coming up on one year since the transplant.

Swim Across America, you are beautiful. You encourage and inspire. You swim in the ‘memory’ of family or friends. You honor those loved ones who courageously continue their battle with this terrible disease. You bring hope of a better future. What better way to celebrate life than to join and swim in their name?

And thank you, Creator, for my Life. I am stepping up! Getting up every day!

Learn more about Swim Across America’s efforts to support the Innovative Clinical Trials Center at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center.

This blog post was written by Denise Robertson, cancer survivor and Swim Across America warrior.

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Why fighting cancer is like learning how to swim