Terry enjoying his “illness-free zone” during his bout with cancer
Any regular readers of our late founder Terry Laughlin’s original blog will remember that even while living with Stage IV metastatic prostate cancer and its attendant complications– including a small stroke, along with chemotherapy and experimental treatment– he chose to use swimming as a vehicle for maintaining a vibrant sense of well-being, despite all the health challenges he faced on a daily basis. In the last two years of his life, he blogged regularly about his journey with cancer and how swimming was an integral part of feeling good and continuing to live a deeply fulfilling life. In addition to his naturally ebullient personality and intrinsic optimism, his choice to approach living with cancer in this way was inspired by one of his longtime students, Dr. Jeanne Safer. Here’s an excerpt from a July 2017 post– “How To Live A Full and Satisfying Life with Cancer”–in which he describes Jeanne’s lessons with him during her cancer treatment, and his own experience of the “illness-free zone” that swimming created:
In 2010-2011, I’d been privileged to witness a remarkable phenomenon when one of my students, Dr. Jeanne Safer, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and then– shortly after being declared cancer-free– received a diagnosis of leukemia, unrelated to the breast cancer. During two years in treatment, Jeanne rarely ever missed our weekly lesson. She would come to our Swim Studio directly from a treatment session. Though she walked in each time looking utterly drained, she would regain energy and vitality during our hour together. Jeanne referred to the pool as her “illness-free zone.”
I experienced the same thing during 18 uninterrupted months of treatments that were often harsher in their effects than the disease. Though I often felt tired or ill, a stunning transformation would occur while taking yoga class or practicing swimming. Especially while in the pool or lake, I would feel vibrant health.
I’d felt a passion for swimming since adopting a kaizen (continuous improvement) ethos in the early 1990s. Now my gratitude for the ability to swim with flow and grace became boundless. I would feel a magical connection to the water with every stroke. I also brought to swimming the habit I’d learned from yoga and qigong, visualizing healing energy flowing through my body with every stroke.
Since my mid-50s, when I’d reached my (age-adjusted) lifetime performance peak, I’d learned to embrace my physical self—with its gradually diminishing capabilities and increasing limitations through my late 50s and early 60s. That process became dramatically concentrated after my diagnosis and the onset of treatment. It seemed as if I experienced 10 or more years of loss of speed and lessening of endurance in just over a year.
Yet my sense of purpose and the pleasure I took from swimming became, if anything, greater. Even as I proceeded to set new “lifetime slowest” marks in my favorite races and repeat times on almost a monthly basis, I never became complacent about trying to eke out the best performance of which I was capable.
- In March 2016, I swam 1650 yards (equivalent of 1500 scm) two minutes slower than I’d ever swum it before, yet in an Adirondack Masters 60-64 record time of 23:10. I described it in this blog as the most satisfying race of my life, because of the absolutely unwavering concentration it demanded.
- In November, despite training just 3000 to 4000 yards per week, I completed two 10K swims on consecutive days in the Red Sea with Total Immersion Israel. Though I tired after 8K on the first, I finished the second with abundant energy. I told those who swam with me that it was the best day of my life.
- In December, I swam 1650 in a time of 26:57, nearly four minutes slower than previously, yet good enough for an Adirondack 65-69 record and equally satisfying because the time was possible only because of several energy-saving adjustments I’d refined as my endurance and strength went south.
Since April, I’ve been in a clinical trial of an experimental treatment from Germany that, at the moment, seems to be working. I’ve had less pain, fewer days feeling ill, and more energy than in many months. I have no time for anxiety, anger over my situation, nor fear of the future. I’m far too preoccupied with taking pleasure from a glorious season of open water swimming, yoga classes, and my work, creating new TI content. In fact, I’ve been more productive, engaged in—and excited by—writing and video production the past year than at any time in the almost 30 years since I started TI. Life is good!
Terry and Jeanne during a lesson at the TI Swim Studio in New Paltz
While Terry did not ultimately survive his bout with cancer, it’s remarkable to recognize that his post above was written just 3 months before he died– his sense of self and zest for life remained intact throughout his cancer journey, and swimming gave him the priceless gift of continuing to live with purpose, passion, and joy until the very end of his life. What more could one ask for? (Except more time– but who doesn’t want that?) Over the years, Terry heard innumerable stories from TI swimmers (particularly in response to his cancer blogs right here)– and many just self-taught, through his books and videos– who had also experienced tremendous healing from swimming in the midst of cancer and other serious illnesses. In the spirit of honoring the feeling of well-being that swimming brought Terry, we’d like to share a letter and interview query from his student Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and noted author– and Terry’s inspiration to swim through cancer– inviting TI swimmers who have experienced healing through swimming with cancer to share their stories as she begins work on a new book about preserving identity through cancer. Any readers interested in sharing their story with Jeanne can send replies directly to her email, which she has included below. Thanks… and Happy Laps!
TI Swimmer Dr. Jeanne Safer
Dear Fellow TI enthusiasts,
Anyone who has had the privilege of knowing Terry, whether through his writing, his videos, or in person, knows how he felt about being in the water. For him, swimming was a source of delight, transcendence, and, ultimately, emotional healing—an almost ecstatic experience of being supported and free at the same time. I had the enormous honor of being his student for 15 years, almost from the time the Swim Studio first opened in New Paltz (his daughter Carrie was my first coach, and it was she who helped me overcome my phobia of bilateral breathing, to my eternal gratitude, before I began working with her father). I remember early in our relationship, Terry told me about a friend of his with breast cancer and lymphedema, a painful swelling of the arm after mastectomy. She was a passionate open-water swimmer and he mentioned that he had invited her to come and swim in his pool any time she liked, so she could “experience the healing power of the water.”
Little did I know at the time of that conversation that I was destined to experience that healing power myself. I began swimming with Terry at age 57, and was diagnosed with breast cancer at 63 and acute promyelocytic leukemia at 64; it was my extraordinary good fortune that both were curable.
A large part of those cures, in addition to radiation and Tamoxifen for the breast cancer and a year of intravenous arsenic for the leukemia, was my weekly lessons with Terry throughout both illnesses. The physical and emotional delight and the challenges of working on my freestyle and breaststroke the entire time kept me going. I used to come directly from the hospital after chemotherapy to my lessons and always emerged enlivened, as well as enlightened, afterwards. I christened the water my “illness-free zone,” where I was an athlete rather than a patient. I even had a port installed in order to be able to swim, at the recommendation of a TI coach who was an emergency room physician, despite my doctor’s reluctance. It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done.
I’ve just gotten a contract to write a book I’ve longed to write since those experiences (this will be my eighth book); the working title is Crazy Once A Day: Preserving Identity Through Cancer. In my own life, I have found that swimming—and particularly TI swimming—is a potent way to maintain and enhance identity through the physical and mental trauma of cancer and its aftermath. I would love to hear from and interview other TI swimmers who have discovered “the healing power of the water” through their own experiences of cancer. I want their stories to inspire other cancer patients and survivors to unleash this remarkable force in their lives. If you want to tell your story and inspire others in the process, email me at email@example.com. I look forward to hearing from you!
Jeanne Safer, PhD is a psychotherapist who has been in private practice for over forty-five years, and the author of seven acclaimed and thought-provoking books on neglected psychological issues—the “Taboo Topics” that everybody thinks about but nobody talks about publicly. Her special areas of expertise include siblings with difficult or dysfunctional brothers and sisters, women making choices about motherhood or who have chosen not to have children, adults struggling about whether to forgive people who have betrayed them, and those coping with the death of a parent. She lectures on these and other unusual and compelling topics.
Dr. Safer’s books include I Love You, But I Hate Your Politics (June 2019); The Golden Condom; Cain’s Legacy: Liberating Siblings from a Lifetime of Rage, Shame, Secrecy and Regret; The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling, Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life without Children; Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better NOT to Forgive; and Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Changes an Adult’s Life—For the Better. Both The Normal One and Beyond Motherhood were Books for a Better Life Finalists for the year’s best self-improvement books.
Dr. Safer has appeared on television (MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Fox News “Kennedy,” C-SPAN, CNN, The Today Show, Good Morning America, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and CBS World News Tonight), as a psychological expert on The Montel Williams Show, and on radio (NPR’s Talk of the Nation and The Diane Rehm Show). She has contributed articles to The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, O: The Oprah Magazine, More Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.
Dr Safer lives in New York City with her husband, historian and political journalist Richard Brookhiser.
VIDEO: How Deep Can Swimming’s Impact Be? [WATCH JEANNE’S INTERVIEW BELOW]