The first year Ganesh Pai got into Lake Michigan for Swim Across America’s Chicago Open Water Swim, his wife, Latha, was not watching along the shore. Though she was at home in Naperville recovering from a recent surgery, she was still with her husband in spirit for every moment of the annual event, which raises funds for cancer research and leading-edge patient care at RUSH University Cancer Center.
“I always had her in my mind when I went out for the swim,” Ganesh said. “It was like I was doing it for her. It was a source of energy for me to go out and make it happen.”
That year, Latha was diagnosed with breast cancer following a regular checkup and mammogram. She sought a second opinion at RUSH University Medical Center.
“I was lucky enough to meet the right team at RUSH,” Latha said. “I liked what they offered, how they treated me and how the team came together to develop my treatment plan. The whole atmosphere was very comforting and positive.”
A personalized approach to care
Latha and Ganesh, now both 56, were impressed by the attentiveness of the care team. They were surprised to find oncologist Ruta Rao, MD, and surgeon Andrea Madrigrano, MD, in the same room on their first visit to RUSH. They initially met with the couple for 45 minutes without interruptions and recommended plastic surgeon Deana Shenaq, MD, to complete the care team.
“They made us feel comfortable,” Ganesh said. “We could sense their empathy. That made a huge difference for us.”
Latha knew she would face difficult appointments anywhere throughout her journey, but the excellent facilities, streamlined processes and — most of all — professionalism of the doctors and nurses at RUSH eased her pain.
One memory that sticks with the couple: Latha opted for chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy. Her care team sent breast tissues for a test to check for any residual cancer. The results took a few days.
“That was a very tense moment for us,” Ganesh said.
When the results came back, Dr. Madrigrano was on vacation, but she called to give the couple the good news: The treatment was successful, with no further evidence of disease.
“It was a very touching point,” Ganesh said. “They made it feel as though she was their only patient. We never had this kind of experience before.”
Finding a cause and community
Ganesh is a marathon runner, triathlete and Iron Man. He knew fellow Swim Across America participant Ellen Bintz Meuch through his training. And in 2021, Ellen introduced Ganesh to Swim Across America by sending him a donation link.
Since 2012 Swim Across America, or SAA, has partnered with RUSH University Cancer Center to raise more than $2 million to support cancer research and clinical trials. SAA also hosts events nationwide.
Seeking to support SAA’s mission, Ganesh joined Ellen’s team, the Cancer Kickers.
“Given what Latha was going through, I wanted to be more actively involved — not just by writing a check but also raising awareness and doing the swim,” Ganesh said.
Although Latha was unable to join Ganesh at the event while she recovered, Ganesh found not only the confidence to swim but also emotional support from the SAA community.
“Listening to others’ stories, especially during my first year, was very comforting,” he said. “It helped me understand that we were not alone in this.”
The road to recovery
After completing cancer treatment last year, Latha was declared cancer-free. She still sees her RUSH cancer care team every six months but is feeling fine. In fact, she has returned to running — a passion she and Ganesh have shared since 2012 — completing the Tokyo Marathon in March 2023. Married for 32 years, the couple has completed more than 25 half-marathons and nine full ones.
In 2022, Latha was able to cheer on Ganesh from the shore as he returned for his second year participating in the Chicago Open Water Swim. While Latha prefers to stay out of the water, she enjoys talking to people at the event — hearing their stories and sharing her own.
Last year, Latha met Jitesh Pratap, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology at RUSH University Medical Center. After learning about Dr. Pratap’s research studying cancer metastasis, Latha agreed to help him raise funds for his work by endorsing a research proposal as a patient/survivor.
Ongoing support for early detection and treatment advances
SAA and RUSH remain deeply personal causes to Ganesh and Latha. They are thankful Latha’s cancer was caught during a routine mammogram at an early stage, increasing her chances of a successful treatment.
“I’m now leading a normal life,” Latha said. “Early detection can help save your life.”
Ganesh hopes SAA’s fundraising in support of RUSH can help advance treatments for cancer, as well as early detection. He would love to see improved chances of survival for people whose cancer is detected in later stages.
“We consider ourselves very fortunate to have access to annual checkups and other routine care,” he said. “But there are so many people who are less fortunate and do not have that access.”
Ganesh and Latha’s aim is to raise awareness around routine checkups and technological advances, with the goal of topping their team’s $15,000 in fundraising from 2022.
As Ganesh prepares to swim another mile in Lake Michigan, the couple’s support is showing no signs of waning.
“I keep going back to Swim Across America because we know the funding is going to RUSH and we want to say thank you,” Ganesh said. “What we are doing to give back is not enough, given what we have received from RUSH — in terms of the focus, the treatment and the personalized care we received. No matter what we do, we think it’s not enough, so we keep coming back every year.”
Interested in joining Ganesh and his team in raising funds for cancer research at RUSH with Swim Across America? Register today for the Chicago Open Water Swim, participate virtually via SAA My Way or sign up to volunteer by contacting Alyse Mauro Mason, SAA volunteer event director, at email@example.com. You can also make a gift to help make waves to fight cancer.