In 1998 cancer changed Steve Schlegel’s life. He lost his daughter Anne, following a year-long battle with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Seeking to honor Anne’s memory and passion for swimming, Schlegel became involved with Swim Across America – Chicago, an annual swimming event that benefits cancer research at RUSH University Cancer Center. He has continued participating for the past 24 years.
“Throughout her treatments, Annie persisted in telling me that whatever happened, she wanted me to continue to work toward finding a cure,” Schlegel said. “This is exactly what Annie demanded that we do, so we’re doing it — in honor of her and because of her.”
Despite the challenges she faced during her cancer treatment, Anne always wanted to help others.
“Annie received many gifts while in treatment, but she gave them all away to the pediatric cancer patients,” Schlegel recounted. “She wanted those kids to have the big stuffed animals and toys to make their journey a little easier.”
Since 1999 Schlegel’s Swim Across America team, known as Team Anne, Mike and Friends — in honor of Anne, as well as a neighbor and family friend, Mike Karpinski — has grown to include as many as 30 swimmers, including Steve’s two surviving daughters, a son-in-law and one of his grandchildren. Over the years, the team has been one the event’s top fundraisers.
An unexpected diagnosis
On March 24, 2022, after years of being active and living a healthy lifestyle, Schlegel himself was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“I had been in good shape all my life,” he said. “It goes to show that nobody can avoid this.”
A lifetime swimmer, Schlegel swam on his high school and college teams and has swum long distances ever since. In fact, during the year prior to his diagnosis, he swam over 100 miles at his local pool.
“Steve is truly the best,” said Alyse Mauro Mason, Swim Across America’s Chicago volunteer event co-director. “It has been a sad time for our community after learning about Steve's diagnosis. He is a loyal friend, mentor, beautiful human and dedicated supporter. We will be cheering for Steve and fighting alongside our dear friend every step of the way.”
Based on positive experiences at RUSH, including a successful urological surgery in 2020, Schlegel immediately sought to enroll in RUSH’s cancer treatment program. Not only was he familiar with RUSH’s commitment to high-quality care through his patient experience, but he was also well aware of RUSH’s expertise in cancer research.
Prior to Anne’s diagnosis, Schlegel connected with cancer researchers at RUSH beginning in the late 1970s while serving as lead counsel in a class action lawsuit for Vietnam veterans seeking compensation from chemical companies that sold Agent Orange and other herbicides. Coincidentally, those herbicides cause various forms of cancer, including the same type of cancer — Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — that Anne had.
“While working on the case, I got to know a lymphoma specialist at RUSH, who was a great help to me in understanding their work,” Schlegel said. “RUSH’s cancer research laboratory is world-class. I have absolute confidence in it and know that the funds raised through Swim Across America have supported research that has since obtained NIH funding and benefits many patients treated at RUSH every day. I know Annie would be proud.”
Diving in to provide advanced care
Schlegel was enrolled in RUSH’s cancer program within 10 days of his diagnosis. Over the course of his first week as a patient, his care team completed all the necessary examinations and tests, including a CT scan, preoperative physical and echocardiogram, and developed his personalized treatment plan.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for how well-organized the process was,” Schlegel said. “I was anxious to get going, knowing that timing from diagnosis to treatment can be a substantial factor in whether or not your outcome is successful. The team at RUSH is a well-oiled machine, delivering services to ensure the best results possible.”
Schlegel underwent chemotherapy targeted to destroy cancerous cells, while avoiding healthy cells and organs surrounding the cancer.
“The progress in cancer research made in the last 10 years or so has been absolutely phenomenal, and it bodes well for my treatment,” he said.
Not only did Schlegel benefit from a swift treatment plan with minimal side effects, but he also had the opportunity to receive services to help alleviate his pain, including acupuncture treatment.
“I have nothing but good things to say about my experience,” Schlegel said. “I’ve been successfully treated thus far by what I think is the best cancer treatment program for my disease in the Chicago area. I'm honored to be in support of it, and I'm honored to be cared for by these folks.”
Schlegel acknowledges that, after all the years he spent fundraising for cancer research and taking good care of himself, it felt ironic that he was eventually diagnosed. But he says there is no question that the collective efforts of Swim Across America have contributed to better treatments — not only for others but also for him.
While Schlegel hasn’t gone for a swim since his diagnosis in March, he plans to attend this year’s Swim Across America Open Water Swim on Aug. 6 and to get back in the water as soon as his strength returns.
“I’ll be back in the pool in the next couple of weeks,” he said. “I’m looking forward to doing some nice, easy laps.”
Some 200 swimmers, including Schlegel and his team, hit Lake Michigan on Saturday, Aug. 6 for Swim Across America, raising more than $250,000 for cancer research at RUSH. You can still register as a virtual SAA My Way participant and fundraise to support local cancer research this year. Learn more here.