No One Ever Says “I Was Lucky to Get Cancer”
Tuesday, December 4 2018
I grew up the middle child of a typical middle class, Boston Irish Catholic family. I was a red headed, freckle-faced tomboy who just absolutely loved sports. All sports. I played every possible sport growing up and was a 3 sport Varsity athlete all 4 years of high school until I tore my ACL. I graduated from Boston College with an Art History degree in the spring of 2001. At the time my best friend had one more year at UMASS Amherst, because let’s be honest, very few of my friends were graduating ZOOMASS in 4 years. So, instead of taking the intelligent, responsible, next step into adulthood and starting a career using my degree, my best friend and I decided we would work at the local liquor store for the summer to get a discount for ourselves and our friends and have a summer to remember. And we were right…but not in the way we expected. In late August, on a road trip to New Jersey, I found a lump in my neck. It was like the story of Jack and the beanstalk. It had just sprouted overnight. It must have. There was no way a lump that size had been there the day before, or that I hadn’t noticed something before now. There was just no way. I went to the doctor, and she quelled my anxiety by saying, if it’s still there in a week, come back. Well, in a week, it was still there. So back to the doctor I went. Blood tests all came back normal. So, I was sent for chest X-ray. Things looked a little suspicious and they sent me for a neck biopsy. I remember post-biopsy, going home, sitting at my parent’s kitchen table, eating sushi, just like any other day. I heard the doorbell ring and I looked up to see my neighbor and longtime soccer and basketball coach, Mr. Roscia, standing at the door. He had just finished treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma a few months before, and right away, I knew something was wrong. He was there to tell me the news. I had been diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkins Lymphoma. I was 22. It was September 13, 2001. 2 days later, I found out a friend of mine who graduated with me in May, went in to work at the Trade Center on September 11th and didn’t make it out. Earlier in the week pre-diagnosis I had gone to the wake for my friends Mum who had lost her long battle with cancer… and my brain just shut down.
Treatment was fairly easy for me, meaning I tolerated it well. Oftentimes I felt nauseous, was exhausted and I lost all my hair but physically, I felt OKAY. Mentally was a different story. I was easily the youngest person being treated on my chemo floor which made me feel, very out of place. I wasn’t a pediatric patient, but I wasn’t exactly a full-blown adult. I remember one day, I had already lost all my hair and I was in the treatment room, getting my chemo cocktail, cracking jokes, in good spirits and across from me was an older gentleman, sitting completely alone, rail thin, and crying. That was the moment I realized how scared I was and what this disease is capable of.
I finished 4 cycles of chemotherapy, took a month off of treatment to let my immune system charge back up and then finished with 6 weeks of radiation treatment. My boyfriend at the time was from New Jersey and having just received a clean bill of health I was more than ready to move on to a new chapter in my life. So, I left Boston and moved to New York City to move in with him. One day, we were walking home from work in downtown Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I saw a sign for Gleason’s Boxing gym. As he and I were walking, I said out loud, “oooh, I want to learn to box”. He looked at me like I had lost my mind and said, “you don’t do stuff like that”. He had never known me as an athlete, and it had been so long since sports were part of my life, I didn’t know myself as one anymore either. Very shortly after that, I signed up to run the NJ marathon in April of 2004 with Team in Training, a fundraising program which supports the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It was my way of giving back, because I felt like I had to pay it forward. I was young, I was healthy, I was able-bodied and because, it was just the right thing to do.
Shortly after running my first marathon, the college boyfriend and I broke up. So in 2005, with new found freedom, I ran another marathon and a triathlon with Team in Training. During training for my 3rd and last marathon, I began boxing as a cross training supplement…and I just fell in love. This was the sport I had been looking for my whole life. I loved both the physical and mental challenge. While I adored the fundraising aspect of my marathons and tris, I realized I absolutely, unequivocally HATED endurance events.
In a quest to continue challenging myself I did what I figured was the next logical step, and started competing as an amateur boxer in New York City, while working in digital advertising for Hearst Television. I worked in the Hearst Tower on 59th and 8th, with a mix of older, stuffy TV executives and the very polished ladies of the publishing world. I was going to work in nice dresses and shoes with bruises and black eyes as accessories. I remember one day in the elevator a woman heading to the floor just above mine, she looked at me and said, “oh honey, you have some dirt on your chin.” We locked eyes and there was a split second of awkwardness when both she and I realized it wasn’t dirt, but instead, a good size bruise. I stood there, frozen, not saying anything because didn’t know what was worse; that someone wearing very expensive red-soled Christian Louboutin shoes thought I would go to work with a dirty face or that maybe somebody had hit me. Thankfully, the elevator door opened and out I scurried, without a word. I didn’t know how to explain to her, someone DID hit me, but, she’s my friend. And in boxing, your friends punch you in the face and the ribs and wherever else they can get a legal shot in.
In April of 2009, I made the finals of the New York City Golden Gloves Tournament and had the opportunity to fight in Madison Square Garden. I remember going to MSG and just thinking of all the famous and legendary boxers who had competed not only in the tournament but who fought in the same venue. Understandably, I was nervous, but thought, if I win or lose the fight, I am here. I made it this far. And I remembered my father telling me “always fight to win. Never fight to not lose.” I ended up winning that night. The next day in the gym, doing my victory lap, one of the old school characters hanging around, and you meet ALL KINDS of characters in any boxing gym, especially ones in New York City, he said to me, “ANYONE can win the Golden Gloves once. You have win it twice to prove you’re something.” So, the next year, in 2010, after shoulder surgery, I entered the tournament, made the finals AND did just that, I defended my women’s 132 lb title against a one-time, Nationally ranked fighter. I guess, I had to something to prove.
I found boxing and it changed my life. It allowed me to find my purpose. No one ever says “I was lucky to get cancer” because I wasn’t. But I was lucky to live near a city that provides world-class treatment and to go on to live a healthy life allowing me to have opportunities and life experiences, enabling me to do what I do now. I have met some of the most amazing women because of boxing. These are women that have changed MY perception of what it means to be woman. I’ve boxed alongside teachers, mothers, musicians, models, writers, accountants, pro fighters, and doctors, the list goes on... boxing is empowering. I think 2 sport professional fighter Heather Hardy said it best, “It’s ok to be strong, it’s ok to be beautiful, and it’s ok to be nasty, it’s ok to be fierce, ferocious and vicious and all those things people told us for so many years we couldn’t be”. Boxing helps women discover their self-worth, it builds confidence and shows us what we are really capable of. Cancer led me to a very dark time in my life but boxing led me out.
One life experience was the chance encounter of meeting Andrew Myerson. Andrew and I met in a boxing gym, Trinity Boxing, formerly in lower Manhattan in 2008. Both Boston transplants, we quickly became friends suffering side by side, night after night, on heavy bags, and being endlessly tortured by trainers with mitt work, and all kinds of painful exercises. For us, boxing was a way to temporarily escape the everyday stress of corporate America in New York City. One night, after taking turns throwing a 100 lb heavy bag down a set of stairs JUST to carry it back up, Andrew and I started talking boxing and fundraising. There are endless events a person can participate in to fundraise; 5ks, marathons, triathlons, stair climbs, 3 on 3 basketball tournaments. But, there was nothing that used the sport we had both fallen in love with, boxing, as the platform to fundraise. The amount of time it takes to prepare for a bout is about the same time it takes to train for a marathon. I’m sure just like many people reading this, I have donated to many friend’s fundraising efforts over the years during their marathon training to help them reach a fundraising goal in support of a non-profit that they are passionate about supporting, passionate enough to run 26.2 miles. That was the very genesis of Haymakers. Just 2 people looking to make a difference and the desire to introduce people to a sport we love.
In 2011 Andrew and I founded the non-profit, Haymakers for Hope. Haymakers is a 501c3 not-for-profit that raises money for cancer research, awareness, survivorship and care through high end, white collar charity boxing events. The concept is to give normal, everyday people the opportunity to fulfill a desire to see what they can do one time in the ring. We work to pair each person that signs up with an opponent who is of similar size, age, weight and skill level, match them up with a local gym and put them through a four-month training program. We then organize a high-end gala event where the participants have their first official sanctioned amateur boxing match in front of approximately 2,000 screaming supporters. Through Haymakers, we have found an unconventional way to link two seemingly unrelated things – boxing and the fight against cancer.
My mission with Haymakers is twofold. I want to continue to raise the much-needed funds essential to advancing research, improving treatments, developing earlier diagnoses, and providing help to patients and survivors. Secondly, I want to introduce people; regular, everyday men and women, to the sport of boxing. I owe so much to the sport. In a way, it saved me, as much as chemo and radiation did 4 years before I walked into a boxing gym in on the corner of Greenwich and Carlisle Streets in Manhattan. In 8 years, over 600 people have stepped through the ropes on fight night in the fight against cancer. We have raised $10.5 million dollars supporting cancer research, awareness, survivorship and care. In 8 years, Haymakers has hosted 19 events in 3 cities, bringing that count to 4 next year and for that I am truly proud.
Boxing is not easy. It is a true challenge of mind and heart. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to walk up those stairs and step through those ropes. What Haymakers fighters accomplish in 4 shorts months is nothing short of inspiring. Having a hand raised at the end of a bout doesn't make a champion. What makes a champion is having the guts to step in that ring prepared and the willingness to go to battle for something bigger than you, and literally fighting for a cure. I continue to be inspired every day by the Haymaker’s fighters I meet during their months of training and the stories they share of who they are fighting to honor.
One thing I’ve learned on my crooked little journey through life; Always help when you can. There will always be someone out there who has it worse than you do and sometimes, a little help goes a long way.
It was my absolute honor to share my story. Thank you so much for reading.