Danville Express

Living - September 14, 2007

Bay swimmers

As in life, the journey is smoothest with the wind at your back

by Natalie O'Neill

Sure, swimming with sharp-toothed tiger sharks is scary - but it's no chemotherapy, says Danville's Candace Hendra.

Hendra, a 54-year-old survivor of ovarian cancer, will brave the dark, icy San Francisco Bay for a 10-mile relay swim Sept. 30 to raise money for children's cancer facilities. And while she expects the swim will be pretty tough, ever since her diagnosis, her definition of "tough" isn't quite what it used to be.

Tough is having toxic chemicals pumped through your veins. Tough is when your long brown hair falls completely out.

The gifted athlete had virtually perfect health up until an unrelated emergency hysterectomy one year ago. At that time, doctors located a tumor on her ovary. During chemotherapy, she would show up to the treatment center, sporting her Boston Marathon jacket, focused as a starting player.

"I used to address my chemo like it was an athletic event," she remembers.

It wasn't until she got through her first few sessions that she learned, at least for her, getting pumped up wasn't nearly as beneficial as learning to relax.

After that, when therapy time rolled around, she would picture herself submerged in ocean water in order to soothe her nerves. Hendra, a licensed social worker who counsels developmentally disabled and emotionally distressed kids, would think about the gentle squawk of seagulls and the feeling of water rolling over her back. And it was calming.

"I closed my eyes and thought of swimming," Hendra says.

Flash forward to today and she doesn't have to close her eyes any longer. She and five other Danville area swimmers are training for Swim Across America, a relay that takes her team of 10 from Pier 9 to AT&T Park in order to raise money for children's cancer facilities at UCSF.

The swimmers will each jump from a boat and take turns swimming for 20 minutes until the final stretch, where they will all plunge into the water and finish the last yards together. The team is hoping to raise $10,000 for the event.

While she was recovering, Hendra told herself that if she made it, the fundraiser would be one of the ways she would "give back." The swim gave her something to look forward to, back when everything seemed to be going wrong.

"I figured they would yank out my uterus and three weeks later I would be back on board," she says. "But they found tumors and I thought, 'Crap - I'm gonna die.' I was totally and utterly shocked. Then it was absolute and utter despair."

As if that wasn't enough for one person to endure, her husband Gregory was diagnosed with appendix cancer just months later.

Now, Gregory will undergo his last chemo treatment six days before she takes "the plunge." As things begin to start looking brighter for the couple, Hendra says ultimately the experience has been "an energizer." A hard day of work doesn't seem so bad these days and she's constantly aware of how lucky she is to be able-bodied.

"I feel like my mission on this planet is not done yet," she says. "This was tough enough on me - and I am tough. For a kid to have to experience this is hard to conceive."

Swim Across America, which has raised $18 million for cancer nationally, began in Nantucket 21 years ago and has since grown into a major fundraiser in Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

It is dedicated to raising money and awareness for cancer research, prevention and treatment. The swims take place in the Boston Harbor, Lake Michigan, the Hudson River and the San Francisco Bay. Last Year was San Francisco's first event and 50 swimmers raised more than $100,000.

"To see San Francisco from sea level - it's gorgeous," says Hendra, who also has done an Alcatraz swim. "You need good strong swimming skills and, frankly, courage."

Aside from the chilly temperature, the toughest part of swimming in the Bay, she explains, is the unpredictable ocean currents.

If you are luckily enough to catch the wind at your back, as in life, it's a smooth journey. But when the current flows against you - and it will inevitably - it can be like trying to "swim against a wall," she says.

For Hendra, the Bay swim is a lot like overcoming cancer.

"You set small goals, you celebrate victories and when you get past the finish line - you kiss the ground," she says.

To pledge money to Hendra's team, visit www.active.com/donate/sanfran07/chendra or reach her 831-0918. Other Danville, Alamo and Blackhawk participants are Kim Bruce, Rebecca Sol, Lisa Werner, John Jeha and Maury Blackman.

Contact Natalie O'Neil at noneill@danvilleweekly.com


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