AVON — When doctors declared Allison DeFrancesco in remission from cancer at the age of 21, they told her, “You’re done (with treatment). Go be normal.”
“I thought, ‘What does that mean?” said DeFrancesco, who was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a collegiate swimmer at New York University. She spent a couple years in treatment before finally receiving a bone marrow transplant. The process robbed her of her swim season, graduation and left her tired and discouraged.
As she struggled to get back on her feet post-cancer, she was hit with another blow — her coach and mentor, Lauren Beam, died of colon cancer in 2011. She wanted to do something in memory of Beam, something that would keep her from defining herself as a “cancer survivor” and nothing else.
“Why not swim the English Channel?” she thought.
Even for a collegiate swimmer, the Channel is no easy feat, and that was the point. In competition, DeFrancesco was a sprinter, not a distance swimmer. Attempting the 28-mile open water swim in the Channel’s famously cold and rough waters conveys a certain commitment, dedication — and let’s face it — craziness; only the toughest succeed. But she lived in La Jolla, Calif., where many channel swimmers train.
“I felt like I was given a second chance at life when my coach didn’t make it,” said DeFrancesco, now 25. “How do I take a very negative series of events and change it into something positive? How do I get back on my feet and do something in memory of Lauren? Well, there are few phrases in the sporting world convey more than the words, ‘I’m going to swim the English Channel.’”
Swimming the Channel
After months of preparation — swimming many lonely miles off the California coast, eating 5,000 calories per day and preparing herself for England’s frigid waters, she got her chance in 2012.
Unfortunately, she and her support crew arrived in the midst of a gale storm and had to call off the endeavor.
She returned in August 2013 to better conditions and completed the swim in 11 hours and 14 minutes, raising funds for Colorado’s First Descents — a charity that takes young adult cancer patients and survivors on rafting climbing and other outdoor adventure trips.
Channel swimmers face everything from hypothermia to jellyfish to dodging cargo ships. But as DeFrancesco puts it, it was nothing like a battle with cancer.
Her support boat, manned by local cod fishermen who knew the waters well, cruised about 20 feet away, tossing her food and water. The experience was freeing in a number of ways, especially after years of training for races that lasted less than a minute.
“You get in the open water and time is irrelevant,” she said. “It was the beginning of something remarkable and end of battle with cancer.”
DeFrancesco is now pursuing her career in the art world, moving soon to Marfa, Texas, to work for the Donald Judd Foundation. She’s also been nominated for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Woman of the Year. Ultimately, she said her goal is to dispel certain myths about cancer.
“I found that people didn’t feel comfortable talking about cancer,” she said. “And it’s a myth that cancer doesn’t happen to young, athletic 20-somethings, because it does and people need to be aware.”
DeFrancesco recently made an appearance in Avon to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.