Del Mar cancer survivor pays tribute to other young cancer patients by swimming the English Channel

By Karen Billing

At age 25, Del Mar’s Alli DeFrancesco is a survivor — first she conquered cancer and, as of Aug. 28, she has swum 28 miles across the English Channel.

DeFrancesco took on the challenge as a tribute to other young cancer patients, to let them know that someone is out there fighting for them and to bring emphasis to the importance of survivorship, that young adult cancer can be overcome.

“I have a lot of peers that are still fighting illness and this is a way to let them know they are not alone,” DeFrancesco said. “They don’t have to be defined by their illness.”

Her swim also raised awareness and funds for her “dream charity,” First Descents, which offers young adult cancer fighters and survivors free outdoor adventure experiences to “climb, paddle and surf beyond their diagnosis, defy their cancer, reclaim their lives and connect with others doing the same.”

DeFrancesco set off from England at 3 a.m. on Aug. 28 and clambored up onto the rocks on the French coast on other side of the channel around 2 p.m. She made the crossing in 11 hours and 14 minutes and as she is a dual citizen, became the first Italian woman to ever swim the channel.

“I honestly had the swim of a lifetime, I exceeded my expectations in every way,” DeFrancesco said.

DeFrancesco was part of the last class to graduate from University of San Diego High School before it became Cathedral Catholic. She has been a lifelong swimmer, growing up swimming for the Rancho San Dieguito Swimming Team at the Boys and Girls Club in Solana Beach.

At age 21 and about to embark on her senior year at New York University, DeFrancesco was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The symptoms had started months before, sinus infections and shoulder pain.

“I wasn’t even sure if I felt sick,” DeFrancesco said, noting she was healthy enough to run 10 miles the day she was diagnosed.

Three weeks before her diagnosis, DeFrancesco’s NYU swim coach and friend Lauren Beam was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 32.

The two shared the heartache of diagnosis and treatment together.

DeFrancesco gave up her double major and graduated a semester early with a degree in art history and then returned to California to concentrate on her health. Her first day of chemotherapy was the day her fellow classmates were at their graduation ceremony at Yankee Stadium. Beam sent her messages of encouragement, “Be you Alli D, be positive.”

The pair supported each other as they went through chemotherapy.

“Chemo leaves a taste in your mouth literally and figuratively that you will never forget,” DeFrancesco said.

She said both she and Beam started to prefer country music as they went through their treatment, they loved how the songs’ lyrics detailed a simple life, “a simple life that we would never have.”

“You start to cherish every little thing and be very self aware,” DeFrancesco said.

She had her “super low” points, when the chemotherapy didn’t work and she had to have an aggressive bone marrow transplant. She endured radiation and her hair falling out, “I lost everything down to my eyelashes,” she said.

She cried when her mom took her wig shopping — she only wore the wigs a few times, turning instead to her growing collection of beanies that were constantly on and off her head due to hot flashes.

Sadly, in September of 2011, Beam lost her battle with cancer. DeFrancesco spoke at her memorial although she barely remembers what she said. It was on that plane ride home from California to New York, a year since she finished her radiation therapy at UCSD Moore’s Cancer Center, that she had a spark of inspiration.

“I realized I was blessed with the opportunity to do something momentously positive in the midst of a negative set of events,” DeFrancesco said. “[Swimming the English Channel] was a way to get back on my feet after going through something as traumatic as I had…it was a way to give back and say thank you and so something universally thought of as challenging. Nothing equates to a battle with cancer but this was something that strikes some people as virtually impossible.”

Taking on training for a channel swim was a big change for a “racehorse” like DeFrancesco, a sprinting specialist in the pool who, by choice, never swam more than a 200-meter race.

She still barely believes the words that come out of her mouth when someone inquires about her weekend plans and they include swimming 18 miles from Cardiff to Pacific Beach.

She teamed up her club swim coach at Rancho San Dieguito, Joe Benjamin, athletic trainer Brian Finn, and experienced local open water swimmers in La Jolla such as Carmel Valley’s Barbara Held, who has accomplished the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, which includes the English Channel, 21 miles across the Catalina Channel, and 28.5 miles around Manhattan Island in New York.

“I’ve loved all the friends and people I’ve met through it, I’ve never had more support for the craziest thing I’ve ever decided to do,” DeFrancesco said.

Last September 2012, DeFrancesco traveled to Dover in her first attempt to swim the channel but was not allowed to swim due to gale force winds.

“Mother Nature plays a tremendous role in English Channel swimming. The weather conditions are the final factor in determining when a swim will take place,” Finn said. “Many swims are often thwarted within the French waters as those tides are particularly strong and can only be overcome with countless hours of swimming. More people have successfully climbed Mount Everest than swam the English Channel.”

While DeFrancesco was, of course, disappointed to not be able to swim, she was even more determined to train harder and return the next year.

DeFrancesco trained in a pool four times a week and twice a week in the ocean, logging 55 to 60 miles a week.

As swimmers are not allowed to wear wetsuits for the Channel Swim, she prepped for cold by traveling to colder waters in Ventura and Lake Tahoe, taking frigid showers, and riding in her car with the air conditioning on full blast.

Channel swimmers are encouraged to add 30 pounds of weight, so on Sundays the lean DeFrancesco prepared a vat of mashed potatoes for the week and stocked up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

On this year’s trip to England, the weather was the opposite of the year before, absolutely beautiful, DeFrancesco said.

“I came with a different air of confidence,” DeFrancesco said. “I had the sun on my back and my swim was rough but it was manageable, it was enjoyable.”

During her swim she sang songs in her head and was immersed in thoughts — as people from home sent texts to Finn he would write them on a white board and hold them up for her to see.

Wearing a glow stick during the dark hours, she swam through shipping lanes with tankers so big they looked like “cities on water,” through jellyfish, one-to-three meter seas, and 18- mile-per-hour wind gusts.

“I just kept thinking ‘I’m in the English Channel, this is me swimming the English Channel, I’m going to swim the English Channel,’ “DeFrancesco said of her racing thoughts.

It’s commonly said that the channel swim really begins in the heavy current of the French waters, 19 miles in, and DeFrancesco can confirm. The currents can take a swimmer up to eight miles off course.

“I was nearly crying into my goggles my hip flexors hurt so bad,” she said.

There’s no beach on the French side so she climbed up onto the rocks and hoped that she wouldn’t have to swim any further. Luckily she had landed at the “Holy Grail” of destination points for Channel swims, Cap-Gris-Nis, and didn’t have to swim — a dinghy fetched her and brought her back to her crew’s boat. Her hips and shoulders aching and her stomach churning, she took a nap on a tackle box.

She felt well enough to enjoy breakfast for dinner — a feast of English bacon.

DeFrancesco said she is still processing what she accomplished — it has been a whirlwind since she got back on Aug. 31. She went right back to work on Labor Day at her job at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla.

The “swim of a lifetime” behind her and after two years of being consumed with the channel swim, she is now looking forward to having extra time with her family, friends and puppy.

She has some ideas about what she might attempt to conquer next, admitting that marathon swimming is addicting.

Whether it’s a big swim, raising funds for First Descents or heading to grad school, this survivor will tackle her next big challenge with confidence.

“I want to raise awareness about the importance of survivorship,” DeFrancesco said. “Whatever your adversity is, don’t let that weigh you down or define you.”

To learn more or donate to First Descents, visit DeFrancesco’s site