Cancer does not discriminate. In one form or another, it's likely the disease has affected you personally or impacted a family member or a friend. February is National Cancer Prevention Month, February 4 is World Cancer Day, and February 28 Rare Disease Day (yes, that’s unfortunately a thing). To honor the importance of this month, and recognize those who have battled the disease, we spoke with NYC-based Lauren Chiarello, a 2x cancer “thriver” - as she calls herself - and all-around badass. Chiarello's mission is to share her story and help others, communicating her journey from patient to survivor to cancer advocate. She’s personally fundraised over $75,000 for cancer charities and is participating in the upcoming Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's “Cycle for Survival,” a movement with the important goal of beating rare cancers. Read about this week’s Featured Fighter who KO’d cancer and is celebrating 10 years in remission in this week’s Lovers & Fighters blog titled: “Fighting Back and Finishing Strong.”
YORK ATHLETICS: You are a 2x cancer “thriver” with a pretty crazy story, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (a cancer of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system) in December 2007 at age 23, going into remission only to relapse within 6 months and receive a Stem Cell Transplant in April 2009. Can you share what that experience was like, your journey over those years and how it feels to be celebrating 10 years in remission in July 2019?
LAUREN CHIARELLO: I led a fairly healthy lifestyle -- grew up an athlete + vegetarian (since I was 14) – so when I was diagnosed with cancer, I was completely sidelined. Luckily, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is one of the most curable forms of cancer. So off I went with 6 months of chemotherapy. I still worked full-time. I took every other Monday off to recover from my treatment – this is when I would come crashing down from the steroids. I lost my hair and eyebrows, gained a little bit of weight – and didn’t feel comfortable in my body. When I was finished with treatment, June 2008, I set out to train for my first half marathon, raising funds for cancer research and advocacy. It was a solid goal that I felt like I could achieve, with the support of my training team. In January 2009, the finish line of the race would become the starting line of my 2nd bout with cancer. During race weekend, I felt the lump above my collarbone return. Ironically enough, I had started working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the development department. I had to leave work for 6 months to undergo more treatment – chemo, radiation, high-dose chemo and a stem cell transplant.
I can’t believe that was 10 years ago. I am super energized to be reaching the milestone of 10 years cancer-free. It’s incredible to see how far I’ve come – both body and mind – since my experience with cancer. I am grateful every day for the gift of life!
YORK: You said that working out every day is part of your physical and mental health and that your battle with cancer sparked that passion, inspiring you to run 8 half marathons and 2 full marathons. You've also become a fitness instructor, teaching Core Fusion Barre at Exhale, Pilates and TRX at Flex Studio, in addition to developing corporate wellness programs, and fundraising for fitness classes. Sounds like cancer changed your life in a uniquely positive way, which is kind of a strange thing to say. Do you think about it that way?
LAUREN: I wouldn’t change this path for anything. Going through the lows of cancer has given me a deep appreciation of everyday life. Fitness changed my life. Movement allowed me to regain my strength post-treatment. If cancer never entered my life, I doubt I would’ve fallen head over heels in love with fitness. It’s a true gift to move our bodies.
I also revel in the mundane daily tasks. For example, it's a privilege to do my laundry. Let me explain. I live on a 3rd floor walk up in Manhattan. When I was recovering from my stem cell transplant, those flights of stairs were a staggering feat. I often could only take a few steps without stopping because I was winded and fatigued. I couldn't bring my laundry down the 3 flights of stairs because it was too heavy and too far. Today, as I hauled not 1 but 2 bags of laundry down, I felt empowered. I felt strong. Believe it or not, walking down (and up!) 3 flights of stairs is a damn privilege that not everyone has.
The immense gratitude I feel for my body can't be put into words. It fought for me when I didn't have much fight left in me. Remember, this precious life is a damn privilege.
YORK: Your upcoming charity event is raising awareness and money for the “Cycle For Survival” event at Equinox on March 10th. Cycle For Survival calls itself a “movement to beat rare cancers” with indoor stationary bike rides across the country that raise millions of dollars ($192 million to-date). One hundred percent of every dollar raised goes to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, known for pioneering rare cancer research. Can you tell us more about this amazing organization and the events that happen across the country?
LAUREN: There are no words to describe Cycle for Survival – you simply have to go and experience! The events take place in 16 major cities at Equinox gyms and each one has ~100 stationary bikes. The energy in the room is electric! Each bike usually has 4 members of the team – and you can have multiple bikes. My team, Team Chi Chi Life, has 5 bikes and 20 rock stars riding. Last year, our team raised over $25,000!
Within six months of the event, the dollars raised are being funneled into research and clinical trials for rare cancers. There is tangible progress being made and lives being saved.
YORK: You are a patient-to-patient volunteer and an advisor at Memorial Sloan Kettering, sharing your experiences and helping patients understand what to expect during treatment as part of the center’s Stem Cell Transplant Orientation for patients and caregivers. The way you described stem cell transplants to us, that they literally “bring you to the brink of death” is intense, and we imagine discussing this with recently diagnosed patients is emotional to say the least. You said part of your mission is to share your story – do you feel compelled to show people that there is hope?
LAUREN: Absolutely, there is hope. Right now, incredible advancements are being made in cancer research and treatment. That said -- prevention is key! Evidence-based research studies show that exercise and diet can reduce your risk for certain cancers. Try to lead an active lifestyle and eat fresh foods. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and are a positive force in your life.
YORK: We often talk about our brand ambassadors being fighters. They understand that hard work and hustle (#lovethehustle) are what makes things happen. How do you relate to the word fighter?
LAUREN: I fight every day to live this beautiful life to its fullest. There are long-term and late effects that many cancer survivors live with – lung and heart issues, peripheral neuropathy, reduced bone health, infertility – and more. Because of the radiation to my chest, I am at a high risk for breast cancer. In my early 30’s, I’ve already had mammograms and MRI’s to monitor any potential for disease. So far, so good. Even ten years later, I struggle with a phenomenon called “chemo-brain” – I have trouble locating certain words to finish my sentences. I frequently lose my train of thought and concentrating on one task is difficult. The fear of recurrence is always with me. I fight the good fight every day – deeply knowing the fragility of life. Be kind to yourself. And others.
YORK: Speaking of hustle, you are the founder of NYC-based Chi Chi Life, which you describe as melding your passions: fitness, fundraising/events, corporate wellness, and cancer advocacy. You are an instructor at multiple fitness studios, teach corporate wellness workshops, are a consultant in the non-profit space, do a ton of cancer advocacy, and host quarterly women’s empowerment events among other things. It’s clear you don’t have a lot of free time. What drives you to do so much?
LAUREN: I am squeezing the juice out of life. No day but today. There are people who are ready to make changes – but perhaps they need motivation to get going. That’s where I come in. I am your cheerleader. I truly believe people can make positive changes with dedication and consistency. I believe in the power of community – we are stronger together. Yes you can!
YORK: You said your hope is to inspire people to lead their best lives. Is there a person in your life who inspires you, whether it’s a friend, family member, someone you work with, a client, or even someone famous (alive or dead)? Who is it and why do they inspire you?
LAUREN: Many people inspire me every day – it’s hard to choose one! I’d say, my students and my family. With my students -- I witness their amazing progress. With my family, I have ingrained values of dedication, tenacity, joy and compassion.
YORK: How do you make a bad day, better? What do you do to chill yourself out and regain balance when you are stressed?
LAUREN: A brief meditation with an anchor on the breath helps to shift my perspective. Or I’ll dive into a juicy book, eat a nourishing meal, go for a run or call my mom. But sometimes, I just eat coffee ice cream! Huge sweet tooth over here.
YORK: Is there anything that you've read or watched lately that inspired you?
LAUREN: The book, Essentialism, by George McKeown, is about the disciplined pursuit of less. The idea is to hone in on your values, set boundaries, say “no” to good opportunities to make space for great ones.
YORK: Do you have a quote that really resonates with your life?
LAUREN: A classic: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”― Mahatma Gandhi
YORK: What is it about YORK Athletics that resonates with you?
LAUREN: Aside from your magically comfy + stylish kicks, I adore your authentic brand voice. Anytime I open up an email or hop on the blog, I feel like I’m having a conversation with like-minded humans. YORK has created a beautiful community of passionate lovers of life.
YORK: How can people learn more about your fundraising event, Cycle For Survival, or start their own team?
Photography credits: Diana Davis Creative
Check out the links below to learn more about Lauren Chiarello:
Lauren on the gram: @chichilifenyc
Lauren on Facebook: