It took two grueling battles with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but 33-year-old Lauren Chiarello found her life’s calling.
The first sign was itchy skin. My thighs itched. My belly itched. Everything itched. I couldn’t see any rashes or dry skin, but after two months, the sensation got so bad that it distracted me at work.
I finally went to a dermatologist in December 2007. We considered potential explanations. Could it be eczema? Probably not; I showed none of the classic markers of the disorder. At the end of the appointment, I mentioned that I had a lump above my collarbone. It might be getting bigger, I told her, but I wasn't sure.
She examined the bump and told me it was an enlarged lymph node, a gland that helps the body fight off infections. She advised me to see a general practitioner for a full checkup. She even called me a few times the following week to remind me.
So I went to a general physician to have blood work done and take a chest x-ray. Then came additional tests, including a tissue biopsy of the lump. That biopsy confirmed the last thing I expected: I had stage 2A Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer that often strikes adults in their 20s and 30s. Itchy skin, it turns out, can be a symptom.
I collapsed into my mom's arms when I got the diagnosis. “I just don’t want to die,” I told her. I was 23, and I had so much more life to live.
The battle begins
I started chemotherapy two weeks later in my doctor's office, enduring 12 treatments over six months. I’d get the drugs every other Thursday and take off work the following Monday, when the steroids that were supposed to ease side effects like nausea and pain wore off. Apart from that—and the wig I wore to conceal my bald head—I kept my life normal. I went my job as a fundraising event planner and met friends for dinner.
By summer, I was in remission. Yet I wasn’t feeling like my old self, and I knew I wanted to get strong again. When two friends told me they were running the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco in my honor (fundraising for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society), I was moved and motivated. With my doctor's okay, I started to train for the Disney Half Marathon in Orlando in January 2009.
I admit it was a little crazy. I’d been a runner pre-cancer, but I had never attempted a race longer than 10K. Still, I did it—I ran the half in two hours and eight minutes. Victory, right? Not quite. The weekend of my half-marathon, I noticed a familiar feeling near my collarbone. Could the lump be coming back?
Returning to normal life in remission
I should mention that coincidentally, I'd recently started working in the fundraising department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), a top cancer hospital that my doctor was affiliated with. I wore my wig when I interviewed at Memorial in September 2008, but I didn’t mention that I had been diagnosed with cancer less than a year earlier. I wanted to be hired because I had the skills they were looking for, not my health history. Luckily, I got the job. But right after I ran my half in January, my doctor confirmed that my Hodgkin’s lymphoma was back.
Lauren vs. cancer: round two
My doctors told me that treatment would be more aggressive the second time around, and I had to be admitted into the hospital for most of it: two preconditioning chemotherapy treatments were followed by two weeks of radiation followed by four-day rounds of high-dose chemo. "Uncomfortable" doesn’t begin to describe the high fevers I struggled with and such severe throat pain that it hurt to eat.
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I also underwent a stem cell transplant: a catheter transfers my own cells, collected by medical staffers weeks earlier, back into my body. The hope was that the newly transferred cells would prompt my system to produce healthy new blood cells. It's a milestone; people in the medical world call the date of your stem cell transplant your second birthday. I celebrated my 25th birthday in the hospital on April 17. A week later, I had my 'second birthday' when I got my transplant.
A life dedicated to fitness
I left the hospital in May and focused my life on recovery and getting strong again. I’ve always loved trying new classes and getting better at old ones. After all I’d been through, working out felt even more rewarding. Nearly every Saturday for the next five years, I'd be at Core Fusion Barre class at Exhale or sweating it out at SoulCycle.
My teachers inspired me to develop a level of strength I didn’t know I had, and the thrill I felt when I realized I was getting better motivated me. With time, I made the decision to devote my life to inspiring others through fitness. In fall 2014, I signed up for barre teacher training with Exhale. Two hundred hours later, I was certified.
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In January 2015, I left the security of a full-time job and founded Chi Chi Life. This is my way of pursuing fitness while keeping up my love for fundraising, event planning, and cancer advocacy. I teach barre at Exhale and Pilates and TRX classes at Flex Studios in New York City while also working with clients to plan philanthropic events.
For me, fitness is all about community and connection. I’ve run several half marathons since my cancer's been in remission, raising more than $75,000 for causes I'm passionate about. I even ran the New York City Marathon, which took me past the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center building. I wish there were words to capture what it felt like to run past the place that saved my life—and helped me discover my life's mission.