The 9th annual Swim Across America Dallas event has raised more than a quarter-million dollars for cancer research and treatment.

Swim Across America makes waves against cancer by raising funds for innovative treatments

by David Buice, Special Contributor | November 6, 2019

We all know that life can change in the blink of an eye, and unfortunately, those changes aren’t always positive ones. That was the case for Thomas Hissam, a seemingly healthy 56-year-old whose life changed abruptly in June 2018 when he received a stage IVB pancreatic cancer diagnosis. 

Although Thomas and his wife Mary experienced a variety of emotions about his diagnosis — fear, frustration, sadness and anger — they also felt hopeful, grateful, strong and determined to fight back. Those feelings of hopeful resolve brought them to Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center – Dallas, where Thomas came under the care of Drs. Scott Celinski, Roberto Rodriguez-Rusega and Carlos Becerra. What followed was 13 months of chemotherapy along with surgery, a med-port placement, two ED visits and one hospital stay.

Despite these difficulties, Thomas and Mary have never lost their determination to live as fully as possible under the circumstances. They’ve traveled extensively together and welcomed a dog into their family. They also discovered Swim Across America, a fundraising event that unites swimmers to raise money for cancer research. 

Swimming to combat cancer

Swim Across America (SAA) was founded in 1987 by two friends: Jeff Keith, who lost his right leg to childhood cancer, and Matt Vossler. SAA’s purpose has always been to raise awareness and money for cancer research, prevention and treatment, along with instilling hope in all those fighting the disease.

Together with another friend, Hugh Curran, Keith and Vossler staged the first Swim Across America in Nantucket, MA in 1987, and from that modest beginning the movement has spread across the nation. Since that time, SAA has raised over $80 million through open water swimming fundraising events and more than 100 swimming pool fundraisers across the country. One of the unique features of the organization is that money raised through SAA events hosted in a particular locale is always used to combat cancer locally.

The Innovative Clinical Trials Center

Swim Across America came to North Texas in 2011 and has raised over $2.7 million to date. Locally, this money funds the invaluable cancer research and treatment services at the Swim Across America Innovative Clinical Trials Center (ICTC).

Located on the campus of Baylor University Medical Center, ICTC drives advancements in early cancer detection and new cancer therapy agents such as immune therapy through innovative clinical trials, offering hope to cancer victims when other treatment options have fallen short. To date, SAA funds have provided more than 450 Baylor Scott & White patients access to innovative, prospective treatment options through 218 clinical trials.

It’s not just local patients who benefit from this invaluable work. As a result of the clinical trials conducted at ICTC, physicians throughout Texas, across the nation and around the world are taking advantage of new, cutting-edge options to treat not only pancreatic cancer, but also breast cancer, blood cancers, brain tumors and prostate cancer.

Dr. Ronan Kelly, having previously served as director of the Gastroesophageal Cancer Therapeutics Program at Johns Hopkins University, is now chief of oncology for Baylor Scott & White Health – North Texas and medical director of Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center – Dallas.

Kelly is extremely grateful for the funds SAA has raised for research and treatment efforts. “The funds raised at this event stay local and go directly to our Innovative Clinical Trials Center, where researchers are working continuously to find a cure for a broad range of cancers,” he says. 

Swim Across America Dallas 2019

The 9th annual Swim Across America Dallas event took place on Sept. 14 at Lake Ray Hubbard. The 350 participants had three options: a half-mile, 1 mile or 2 mile swim in the lake. Funds from the event are still coming in, but to date, the 2019 swim has raised slightly over $238,000 for ICTC cancer research and treatment, with an ultimate goal of $275,000.

“It is so wonderful to see the D-FW swim community get together and do something to fight cancer,” says Leslie Lucas, Event Director of SAA Dallas. “Because of the funds raised from this event, tremendous strides are being made in treatments and research. We appreciate all those making waves to fight cancer!”

Two of those making waves at the event were Thomas Hissam and wife Mary. Despite the treatment challenges of the past 13 months, Thomas swam while Mary manned a kayak to assist him and other swimmers if needed. 

“Tom is a beautiful swimmer, he has cancer and he believes in research and clinical trials,” Mary says. “I am decent at fundraising, pretty handy with a kayak and also believe in science and research. So, swimming and volunteering for this amazing cause is the easiest thing we could do. And it allows us to do something.”

Also among the 350 swimmers was hospital chaplain Alan Wright. He is part of the care team at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center – Dallas and leads support groups for cancer patients, counsels them, officiates their weddings and sometimes at their funerals. In the 12 years he’s been at the center, he’s come to know patients in all stages of their cancer journey.

“As an oncology chaplain, it is my privilege to walk alongside people during the highest highs and lowest lows of their cancer journey,” Wright says. “I have great reasons to celebrate with patients as they eat their first real meal following oral cancer or walk out of the hospital under their own power after a heroic fight with lymphoma.”

Inspired by these constant displays of courage, Wright has participated in several SAA Dallas events, although he admits that he’s not the best swimmer. “It’s hard,” he says simply. This year, he swam five miles in the SAA Dallas event and served as captain of the North Texas SAA team.

Wright draws much of his determination and strength from his young daughter, as well as from the patients he has known whose battles with cancer did not end as they had hoped.

“I wear the swimmer’s cap for my 10-year old daughter’s future,” Wright says. “I wish for her to live in a world where the word ‘cancer’ is less frightening than it is now. I raise money for these clinical trials and for all the people who fought hard and did everything right, only to lose their battle with cancer.”

Through opportunities like Swim Across America, you, too, can join the fight against cancer. Discover how Baylor Scott & White Health is furthering the field of cancer research through innovative treatments and clinical trials.

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