Triathlete Staffer Finds Comfort in Competition

Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:33pm

Being diagnosed at the age of 24 with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma translated to countless hours of worry for Senate staffer Kaitlin Sighinolfi.

And while her cancer has been in remission for nearly three years, Sighinolfi says she still often gets the urge to run to the hospital and have her doctor do an exam just to prove there’s been no recurrence.

“I live in constant fear of it coming back,” says Sighinolfi, 27, a legislative aide in the office of Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Instead of running to the doctor, she just runs. And swims. And bikes.

While fear can bring some people facing a cancer diagnosis to a halt, it has worked as a motivating factor for Sighinolfi. In fact, she has found a way to channel this emotion into exercise in a big way: She competes in triathlons to raise money for cancer research. To date, she has run six races and raised thousands of dollars for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Participating in triathlons has a twofold benefit for Sighinolfi. Not only is it a way to raise money, but it also is a way to show her family that she is in fact healthy. During her six months of chemotherapy and during the subsequent year of remission, family and friends peppered Sighinolfi with questions about her health. Over time, their constant concern wore on her.

“I thought, ‘What can I do that will impress people enough to convince them that I’m healthy?'” she says.

When she heard about the Nation’s Triathlon in September 2008, an annual event that benefits the LLS, she signed up. The nonprofit organization was already close to Sighinolfi’s heart because one of the chemotherapy drugs that saved her life, rituximab, was found through research funded by the organization. Besides finishing six more triathlons and raising thousands of dollars, Sighinolfi has also met other survivors along the way.

“Having cancer is like pledging a fraternity or sorority,” she says. “You do it and you’re a part of a club.”

Since racing, Sighinolfi has been stunned by the outpouring of support from those in her life. She has collected donations from family members, friends, colleagues and even former employers.

“I’m so impressed with Kait — inspired really,” says Tom Sheridan, Sighinolfi’s former boss at the Sheridan Group. “We are involved as supportive friends and donors to LLS. The firm is giving, but each of us as individuals gives, too. Kait has that effect on people. You just want to give more.”

Sighinolfi’s current mission is less physically taxing: She is seeking to raise $100,000 as part of the Man and Woman of the Year competition, a larger project organized by the LLS. The project is a fundraising competition.

“This is bigger than anything I’ve ever done,” she says.

Over the course of 10 weeks, teams compete to raise the most money, with 100 percent of the funds raised going to cancer research. Over the past 19 years, the competition has raised more than $53 million nationally.

Sighinolfi says she finds the competition comforting. “I live in constant fear that it’s going to come back, but it makes it less scary because I have an army of people behind me who are constantly raising money for research,” Sighinolfi says.

Her 20-person fundraising team goes by the name Living Proof as a nod to Sighinolfi’s struggle and the fact that research done by the LLS helped her beat cancer. The group has hosted a handful of fundraising parties and happy hours around town. They have also accepted corporate and individual donations, though Sighinolfi won’t say how much she has raised until the competition ends in June.

“$100,000 would help to provide enough money to get a new research grant up and running — a grant that could potentially find another drug that plays a crucial role in someone’s battle with cancer sometime in the future,” Sighinolfi wrote in an e-mail. “That would be AMAZING.”