Swim Across America (SAA) returns to Nantucket this August for its second year thanks to an enthusiastic group of islanders who are swimming hard for a cure for cancer. “What’s unique about this year is that every penny we raise after expenses is going to stay on island,” says Jill Roethke, the event’s co-director. Net proceeds will support the Nantucket Cottage Hospital’s new cancer center and Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket (PASCON) services. “If the annual swim is successful, we hope to eventually be able to fund the hospital’s whole cancer program.”
The Roethke family knows firsthand what it’s like to cope with a cancer diagnosis on Nantucket. Just before participating in last year’s SAA event, Jill’s husband, Steve, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. “He’s clear now,” she says. “But it puts things into perspective and changes your life.” A year ago, there were limited services available to them. “We did use PASCON, and they were great about ad- dressing how to talk to our kids about cancer and how to talk to each other. Obviously, we’d never been faced with that before,” she explains. But other than the dermatologist Steve initially saw on island, all of his subsequent treatment took place at Dana-Farber. “Knowing what we went through,” says Jill, “I feel that if there’s a way people can do some of their appointments here, it would help a lot. Doing that long trip is really hard on families.”
“Swimming has always been a part of who I am, and it’s responsible for the best things in my life… Twenty months ago, cancer became another part of who I am, ” says Steve Roethke. “Swimming has taught me that if you want something really bad, and you work hard to get it, you can achieve anything. I want to beat cancer. I want to see my kids graduate and get married. I want to grow old with my wife at my side. I want to help others do this too. This is why I swim.”
Former Olympic swimmer, Janel Jorgensen McArdle heads up the national SAA organization as its president and CEO. She says that with SAA’s help, Nantucket Cottage Hospital is going to be “leveraging a cancer doctor from Mass General Hospital to come to the island and provide the highest quality of care for islanders, without them having to travel to Boston or Providence.” SAA is dedicated to raising money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment across the country with over 120 swimming-related events with swimmers at all levels from recreational to Olympic. More than $45 million has been contributed to beneficiaries, such as the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Mass General Hospital for Children’s Cancer Center in Boston, Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, Memorial Sloan- Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, among many others.
Island resident Caitlin Marcoux can attest to the great need for additional services on Nantucket. Marcoux was diagnosed with breast cancer this spring, and has often had to travel back and forth to Boston to receive treatment. “It is a heartbreaking reality that Nantucket needs additional support for its growing population of cancer patients,” she says. “I have been lucky enough to receive most of my chemotherapy treatments here at home. I have seen with my own eyes how important it will be for us to expand our oncology program.” She continues, “People ask me on a daily basis how they can help me in my fight against cancer: SAA’s Open Water Challenge is an empowering way to get involved in supporting not just me, but all of us in need.”
The first SAA event took place in 1987 with a relay swim from Nantucket to Hyannis, but until 2012, SAA hadn’t returned to the island for a swim event since the mid-nineties. “Last year’s swim was really a 25th anniversary celebration for the organization and a way for us to go back to where it all began and celebrate our progress,” explains McArdle. “It was intended to be an anniversary event only, however, there were a bunch of local islanders that wanted to keep it going, which we were very excited about.”
Island resident Jenny Paradis was one of them. She’d been a former high school and college All-American swimmer, but had to give it up abruptly in college when her brother became terminally ill with a rare spinal tumor. Paradis began swimming again when she moved to Nantucket. She participated in the early years of the SAA and is partially responsible for the SAA’s return this year. Paradis has watched three of her colleagues deal with breast cancer in the last five years and knows the toll it takes to go through diagnosis, consultation, treatment and follow-up, while having to deal with the inherent travel time, expense, and anxiety. I am so thrilled and honored to be making an impact right here in my community, especially knowing how much more difficult it is to live with cancer when resources are far away.”
Co-director and swim coach Jim Pignato was also involved when SAA was doing the Nantucket swims back in the mid-nineties. “It’s nice to come full circle now and to be running the event — and to use my passion for swimming to help support a great on-island cause,” says Pignato, who is not only an SAA Nantucket event co-director and coach of the Nantucket High School swim team, he’s also coach of The Dolphins club team. “Altogether, we have about fifteen teams already signed up this year, and the majority of them are island- based,” he says.
SAA Nantucket’s goal is to raise $150,000 this year for cancer initiatives at Cottage Hospital and PASCON, so whether you swim like a pro, paddle along with a snorkel and mask, kayak, volunteer, or just cheer people on, join friends, neighbors and former Olympic swimmers, like McCardle and Craig Beardsley, as they “make waves” to fight cancer at Jetties Beach on Saturday, August 24th at 8 a.m.