By Danny Cappiello
Swimming twenty one miles in cold, rough water seems like an impossible feat. But I guess everything is relative. When you have battled cancer and won, very little probably seems impossible. That is the very perspective Allison DeFrancesco has and that is why she has decided to swim the English Channel this September.
Going into her senior year of college, Allison, a native of North County San Diego, was struggling with health problems. She did not know what was going on and threw herself into her collegiate swim training at NYU. But her health did not turn around and she eventually had to have it checked out. She graduated college early and came back to San Diego to get medical attention. Before she could figure out what was happening with her body, she learned some difficult news. Her college coach, Lauren Kyle Beam, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Lauren was pregnant and lost the baby to the disease. Shortly thereafter, the next wave of bad news hit Alli. She too had cancer, a classic case of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Although diagnosis and treatment started for Lauren only a month or so before Allison’s, the coach and mentor stayed true to her role. She coached Alli through the process, encouraging her to stay positive, remain true to herself and to question the treatment options. All of this, especially the last piece if advice, proved crucial to Alli’s struggle. As it turned out, she had been under-diagnosed and therefore her treatment was not working. She sought out second opinions and her care was eventually transferred to the UCLA Lymphoma Program.
This September will be two years since Allison finished her treatments. The aggressive course of action she took saved her life. Although left with a mass, albeit stable, in her chest, she is cancer-free these days. Her coach, Lauren, was not as lucky. She passed away in September 2011 in what DeFrancesco considers “a roll of the die.” On the flight home from her coach’s memorial service at NYU, Alli kept thinking to herself, “what if?” This is a thought that had plagued her before during her bone marrow transplant, a time she describes as “one of the loneliest times of my life.”
It was on this flight home that Alli decided she had to do something, something big, and something to inspire other people who have battles of their own. According to Alli, “when you take away the limits people tend to put on themselves, you can do anything.” She wrote an email to her club coach since childhood, Joe Benjamin, on the flight and suggested the idea of swimming the English Channelin memory of Lauren Beam. Coach Benjamin quickly responded in support of this idea.
One might think that for a former collegiate swimmer, this is not a big deal. But Alli was a sprinter in college. She fully admits that she does “not have the mentality of a distance swimmer,” a concept that has been reinforced by distance coaches. Her races lasted less than a minute. The Channel swim generally takes 11 hours. This certainly qualifies as something big.
Training has been one challenge for sure. A typical week includes forty miles of swimming, with four weekday 5 a.m. practices, a weeknight ocean swim, two weekend ocean swims and a couple of personal training sessions thrown in for good measure. While many of her peers are out partying, Allison is training, eating – to try and replace the 12,000 calories she burns off each week while swimming – or sleeping. She doesn’t just want to be a cancer survivor. Alli wants to change the face of young adult cancer.
Other challenges have arisen during her training as well. Originally, Allison had secured a sponsor to fund her trip. In return she was to raise money for their cause. That sponsor seems to have backed out leaving DeFrancesco with a hefty debt in excess of $5,000. This has not deterred her from the goal, but has added a level of stress. She works a full time job at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in addition to her training. Little time is left for fundraising. But she is still optimistic and talks about what she will do with the excess funds she raises. First Descents is an organization that does what Allison is basically doing on her own. They take young adult cancer patients and survivors on outdoor adventures to help them regain control in their lives. So it makes perfect sense that any funds Allison raises above her own costs will go directly to this organization.
Apparently swimming the English Channelis a moving target. Allison has a range of dates that she can do it. Her launch could be delayed a few days. It could take place in the middle of the night. The currents and weather conditions are unpredictable and timing has to be just right. But Allison has faced unpredictable conditions before. And she has beaten them. There is every reason to believe she will come out victorious in this quest as well.
Danny Cappiello is a digital media consultant and producer currently living in Solana Beach.
To follow Allison DeFrancesco’s progress or to donate to her cause, go to