Jennifer Haidu started raising money for Swim Across America after being treated at Rush for breast cancer. Four years later, she created an additional event to add more support for cancer research and treatment at Rush.
Pictured (left to right): Kathy Olcese, Barrett Davids, Jennifer Haidu
Jennifer Haidu noticed something odd in her doctor’s facial expression when he told her to get an ultrasound in January 2015. When her test came back positive for stage 2 breast cancer, she understood his demeanor. The investment analyst was 42 years old at the time, and her daughter was five. Jennifer stuck to a healthy diet and a regular workout regimen with high-intensity interval training. She relied on that energy and work ethic to face this serious challenge.
"Friends and family rallied around me. Then it was off to the races," Jennifer said about the days that followed her diagnosis. "Unfortunately, a diagnosis like mine is so common, but because of that, we could start treatment right away."
Five months of draining chemo would follow before Jennifer had a double mastectomy in July 2015. Her office gave her supplies for a workstation at home. She still went to the gym and played with her daughter as much possible. Jennifer and her husband made sure their daughter’s routines remained intact.
“It was hard to keep up with my daughter,” Jennifer said. “One time I woke up on the couch with one of her toys in my hand. I had fallen asleep while we were playing. But I’m fortunate in that I had a lot of support at home, from my co-workers and my care team at Rush.”
Compassionate care team
Jennifer received chemo at Rush Cancer Care in Lisle, Illinois, and quickly struck up a relationship with her nurses. During her sessions, Jennifer found ways to add levity by bringing the care team quirky gifts like pens shaped like syringes.
“They were so caring and compassionate,” Jennifer said. “I wanted to know and understand everything that was happening to me, why I felt how I did on certain days and times, how my diet could affect treatment. They explained every single detail to me. And they helped me through some dark days.
“My sister is a nurse and is extremely picky about care,” Jennifer said. “She even said the Rush staff was amazing.”
During those sessions, Jennifer learned about the Swim Across America–Chicago Open Water Swim. She found the perfect vehicle to use her skills to help support others facing cancer, and also those trying to treat and eventually cure the disease.
Team 'Every Second Counts'
Jennifer remembers seeing a pamphlet for Swim Across America while at the infusion lab. Around that time, her other sister, Kathy Olcese, received an email about the annual swim fundraiser that supports the Rush University Cancer Center. Jennifer described it as a “no-brainer” to get involved.
“After the experience I had with the Rush staff in Lisle, not to mention my experience as a whole, it made perfect sense to do this,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer and Kathy quickly got to work tapping their networks for donations and it paid off: The sisters’ team, called Every Second Counts, was in the top three fundraisers for the 2015 event.
Jennifer was still recovering from surgery at the 2015 Chicago Open Water Swim. She remembered heavy emotions that came on at the event, especially so close to the end of treatment. She felt encouraged by the turnout, especially the number of Rush faculty and staff who participated.
"You know all along that cancer affects everyone, but seeing so many people there willing to take the extra steps was inspiring," Jennifer said. "At the event, you can write a message on a rock that has special meaning to your cancer experience. I wrote 'the cure is out there.'"
Jennifer credits the transparency and detailed reporting from Rush and Swim Across America to inform participants about how the event funding is used. Since partnering with Rush in 2012, Swim Across America Chicago events have raised more than $1.7 million for an array of research into breast, colon, liver and lung cancers, among others.
“When I learn each year about the innovative approaches to cancer detection and treatment funded by this event, I feel like we get a little closer to a cure,” she said. “I also feel like we can do more next year.”
Jennifer was healthy enough to swim at the 2016 event with her Every Second Counts team and continued to raise funds and swim at the 2017 and 2018 events. But for 2019, she decided to take an even more significant step.
Lighting a local swimming spark
“There’s a really strong swimming community in Naperville, and I couldn’t help but wonder if we could hold a swim fundraiser right here in town to add on to the Lake Michigan swim,” Jennifer said. “With the passion for swimming and how widespread cancer’s effects are felt, both for those who have the disease and their friends and loved ones, it just seemed like there was potential.”
Jennifer partnered with the Cress Creek Country Club to host a pool swim for Swim Across America and Rush on June 30. She printed more than 1,000 postcards promoting their efforts and distributed them near her home in Naperville, Illinois. Her instincts proved to be on point. As of July 29, $13,600 has been raised by 10 participants through the event, before corporate matching brings in additional donations.
"People told me at the Cress Creek swim that they're now inspired to get more people involved," Jennifer said. "It gave me chills to hear because that's how I think about this too. If we simply ask a few more people or find other ways to partner with our communities, we can make big strides together.
“While I was in treatment, I remember how crowded the parking lot always was at the infusion center. And that’s just one center, in one city, in one small part of the world. Everyone is affected by cancer. That’s why we need to do whatever it takes.”
Register for the Swim Across America – Chicago Open Water Swim and learn more about how to support the effort, both in the water and on the beach on Saturday, Aug. 10 at Ohio Street Beach, Chicago.