Ellen Bintz Meuch signed up for the Swim Across America, or SAA, Chicago Open Water Swim in 2013 for the health benefits, to reconnect with a friend and to support her aunt, who was battling myeloma. When her husband, Lee, was diagnosed with stage IVB pancreatic cancer four days before the event, the swim became a lifeline for Bintz Meuch, providing her with the supportive community she needed during one of the most challenging times of her life.
At the time of Lee’s diagnosis, the cancer was found to have metastasized to his liver, lymph nodes, stomach wall and spleen. Doctors estimated he had between 6 and 18 months left to live. Bintz Meuch wanted to throw in the towel on the swim, but Lee told her, “No! You have to do the swim. It’s for cancer.”
“As difficult as those days were before the event, he was right, and we did not regret the decision,” Bintz Meuch said. “It was a beautiful day. We felt supported and comforted by survivors and the families of those who had lost loved ones to cancer.”
The Chicago Open Water Swim benefits research conducted at RUSH University Medical Center to develop the early detection tools and treatment options of the future in the fight against cancer.
“People are just so happy to be together and support each other,” Bintz Meuch said of the event. “It’s great energy. There are people who are grieving, people who are celebrating because they’ve gotten past cancer, and people who are there in support of others. Everyone honors and embraces everyone else’s experience. It’s the way the world should be all the time.”
Bintz Meuch has participated in SAA annually since 2013, though tragically, Lee passed away before the 2014 swim, and her aunt passed away in 2017. Driven by a mission to shield others from the pain of cancer, Bintz Meuch continues to spread the word about the event to encourage support for cancer research.
She created what she named the Blanket of Hope in 2013 and adds to it each year with the names of everyone who donates to her SAA fundraising campaign.
“I have learned, firsthand, that research that explores prevention, early detection and new treatments is the only option we have for making progress against cancer,” she said. “We must never give up hope that we can eliminate cancer in memory, in honor and for the protection of our loved ones.”
SAA is neither competitive nor timed, making the energy and atmosphere even more supportive, Bintz Meuch said. When people arrive at the event, they are offered temporary tattoos, with special designs for first-year participants. Swimmers may also decorate rocks with the names of the individuals they’re swimming for, and everyone throws the rocks into the lake together before the swim. Those who raise $1,000 or more for SAA are given special “Wavemaker” designation and awarded a prize for their fundraising efforts.
“I feel like SAA is such a great event because the money stays in Chicago,” Bintz Meuch said.
Since 2012 SAA has contributed more than $2 million to support cancer research at RUSH University Medical Center. SAA funding has supported many promising projects that are helping to improve cancer diagnosis, treatment and patient outcomes.
Some 200 swimmers, including Bintz Meuch, 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.
(Image caption: Ellen Bintz Meuch (fourth from the left, back row) gathers with her Swim Across America team, the Cancer Kickers.)