Heather Rangel is a Deloitte partner and a Cancer Commons Pathfinder donor and volunteer. She heads up Project Shine, in which she works with her extensive network to support Cancer Commons. Heather kick-started the campaign by setting a goal she wasn’t sure she could meet—swimming a 10,000 meter butterfly—and raised more than twice her target amount. I spoke with her about her achievement.
What motivated you to help Cancer Commons?
It all started with my friend Jackie. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 37, and she died when she was 40. She called her first year after diagnosis her “wasted year” because she was just being treated locally, and she wasn’t tapped into the broader national network. Once she was at MD Anderson, she still spent a significant amount of time researching and realizing mistakes that she had made; things like getting radiation, which later disqualified her from a really important clinical trial. It just seemed ridiculous to me. It felt awful. And eventually she ran out of options.
She had a profound influence on the people around her. She didn’t know how many months she would have, so she was focused on helping somebody every day. That’s what we’re trying to carry on with the Shine campaign and with the swim.
What did you set out to do and what did you accomplish?
I took on a goal to swim 10,000 meters of continuous butterfly. I felt like I had to do something that was potentially impossible in order to be worthy of asking people to donate and support me. I had done a 10,000 meter freestyle swim before, but only 1,000 meters of butterfly. I had about 6 weeks to prepare.
How did you prepare? Did anyone help?
Well, at the beginning I didn’t have much support. My swim coach said, “No, you shouldn’t do that.” A lot of people thought it was dangerous, that I could injure my shoulders. My old swim coach and a couple of the swimmers at my pool also said, “Don’t do it.” Then I came across this guy who’s a substitute swim coach, and he said, “Okay, well what are you going to do to train?”
So did people eventually come around?
Every week, more and more supporters starting coming around. A lot of swimmers would notice me out in the pool swimming tons of butterfly and started telling me I’d inspired them to push themselves to swim farther. The more it went, the more momentum it picked up from people just being very supportive and actually inspired by it, and that was extremely motivating for me.
How did you raise money?
For this particular event, I was focused on the swimming community. I knew swimmers would kind of stop in their tracks and be like, “She’s gonna do what?” I’m glad that it then circulated out past the swimming community.
And someone gave me the idea of asking for pledges per lap. That really helped me. Even though I think people would have donated anyway, I felt this sense of, “If I do the next 25, I’m going to get even more money, and the next 25 I’ll get even more money.”
What was the day of the swim like?
I got up at 3:30 in the morning. I was super excited. I did a lot of stretching, and I went through a ritual of honoring the people I was swimming for—my two friends that I lost and my current friend that is still fighting. I wrote their initials on my arms and back with neon body paint. I felt like I was getting into warrior paint.
Then my coach met me just before 6:00 and pulled the covers off the pool, and I set up a little shrine where I had pictures of my friends. I had 100 dice and two buckets, so as I did my swim, each time I stopped to get a drink, I would move the number of dice over to represent how much I did; that’s how I kept track.
So there wasn’t anyone standing on the side counting for you.
Yeah, and it was awesome because I didn’t really count by meters. I counted by sessions of dice. Throughout the day there were people there, and I always told them, “Don’t tell me how much I have left.” Because if they told me I have 6,000 meters left to go, I would think, oh my god, that’s still more than I’ve ever done in my life. But when I looked at the dice, I could see, okay, I’m making progress.
That sounds like a great strategy.
Yeah, so it was just me and my coach Mike out there, and then suddenly another guy that I’ve been swimming with for a long time showed up as support, so that Mike didn’t have to sit there for 5 hours. And then also really early, another guy from the pool that I didn’t know very well came up and said, “I woke up in the middle of the night and was thinking about your swim.” He got tears in his eyes and told me that his girlfriend was a breast cancer survivor. He stayed at the pool the entire time.
That was my main crew. And then a couple of my girlfriends came for a couple hours, and then another couple of girlfriends came, then my daughter and her friend; so throughout the 5 hours there was this moving flow of supporters. I couldn’t really talk to anybody, but it was awesome to have them there.
What kept you motivated when you were swimming? Was there ever a moment when you wondered if you would make it?
What kept me motivated was that I thought a lot about my friends who died, Julie and Jackie, and I started thinking about what they would say, you know, imagining them there watching me, and that gave me a lot of joy.
Around about 4,000 meters in, I started to get a lot of pain. Not injury pain, more like fatigue pain. I found a way to break down the micro-movements of my body; after the part of each stroke that hurt, I found a place of total relaxation for just a millisecond. That was my little gift after each point of pain. And it was sort of epic; it felt like an analogy for life. Just coping through pain and finding peace in chaos.
What was it like when you were getting close to finishing?
My daughter was there with her friend, and a lot of people that I didn’t expect to be there started getting really captivated by what I was doing. And suddenly everybody just started cheering. I felt really, really strong and super elated, and I powered through it—and it was a feeling of ecstasy really. I could hear people screaming, and it was just awesome, and I was so happy to be done.
What did you do afterwards?
It was funny; everybody asked me, “What are you going to do now?” And I said, “I’m going to get home and do the laundry.” And I found out later from my therapist that there’s actually a book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. The basic idea is that when you reach moments of high spirituality, it’s important to go back and find that spirituality in the day-to-day things.
How was your personal achievement able to help Cancer Commons?
Well, gosh, I hit the $25,000 mark, and my stretch goal was $10,000. So I raised two and a half times the money I thought I would. My biggest mission was to get awareness up, and I’m confident that the network has grown because of it. It’s been pretty amazing.
Why help Cancer Commons?
I’m all in on Marty [Cancer Commons’ founder]. I just have a huge amount of love and respect and admiration for him, and I believe that he has the ability with Cancer Commons to reach his goal of cutting cancer mortality rates in half without having any new drugs. I believe in him wholeheartedly. I’m also just as disgusted as him with how much current strategies don’t make sense. They need disrupting, and I think Cancer Commons is the way to disrupt what’s happening now.
I believe that, through computer science, data management, communities, and ecosystems, we can change this. Supporting Cancer Commons feels like the most real way to make a huge impact and to help people like my friends, who struggled and continue to struggle navigating something that should be much easier to navigate.
What would you say to people who are currently dealing with cancer? Is there any advice you’d give, based on what you know now?
My advice is always to get in touch with Cancer Commons immediately. There’s nothing to lose, and it contributes to collective learning, if nothing else. Also, because I’ve been in this world now for a couple of years, I meet survivors all the time that, even though they got that terminal diagnosis, they are just thriving today. So I would say that nothing works more than to continue to push and to never give up—and to continue to explore options. And hopefully by the time our kids are grown, there will be a much better platform in place.