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Both in and out of the water, competitive swimmer and colon cancer survivor emphasizes the importance of teamwork

Cancer survivor and swim club raise funds to support research at VCU Massey Cancer Center during Swim Across America Richmond event.

Man with sunglasses wears a rainbow wig styled as a mohawk. George Sushkoff donning a “crazy wig” at the 2022 Swim Across America Richmond event. (Contributed photo)

By Katherine Layton

Competitive swimming is an individual sport, George Sushkoff says. But to win, it requires teamwork and collaboration.

“It’s important to surround yourself with others who you can count on to encourage and push you to be better,” the former Division 1 collegiate swimmer and high school swim coach said. “And to lift you up when you need that, too.”

At age 58, Sushkoff still participates in — and often wins — competitive pool and open water races hosted by U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS). He swims with a USMS training group in Midlothian called Team River City.

In late August, Sushkoff participated in the fifth annual Swim Across America Richmond event, a one-mile swim to help #MakeWavesAgainstCancer by raising money for cancer research at VCU Massey Cancer Center. It’s an event Sushkoff has participated in in the past. But this year, it’s personal.

The power of teamwork

Training and competing with a club, Sushkoff says, is important to better your form in the water. It also builds camaraderie that contributes to success.

This bond was never more important than earlier this year when Sushkoff was diagnosed with stage 2 colon cancer.

Within 24 hours of Sushkoff’s diagnosis, his friend and teammate Erica Burgess had reached out to Swim Across America Richmond and connected him with Massey, Sushkoff said.

“The Massey team immediately swung into action. They called me the next day, saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you.’” he said.

That set into motion a collaborative, team approach to determine an optimal course of treatment.

On Sushkoff’s newfound medical care team fighting with, and for him, was Khalid Matin, M.D., FACP, a medical oncologist and colorectal cancer specialist at Massey, who was recently appointed to lead Massey’s global oncology efforts.

Matin and his clinical team offered to review Sushkoff’s current scans and conduct additional tests of their own. They consulted with doctors within and outside of Massey, ultimately revising Sushkoff’s original diagnosis of stage 1 colon cancer to stage 2, which was critical to knowing how to design the best treatment plan for Sushkoff.

“Every member of the Massey team, from Dr. Matin to the nurse navigators, was generally interested in my situation,” Sushkoff said. “I can tell they all genuinely cared about me.”

“It’s a privilege to be part of a team that shares information and expertise to best help patients, like George, who are facing the challenges of a cancer diagnosis,” Matin said. “We all have one shared goal: to offer our patients the best and most up-to-date treatments available to help them not only survive, but to thrive despite a cancer diagnosis.”

Sushkoff is currently undergoing a strict treatment regimen that includes bi-weekly infusions, and he has a pump to deliver another medication for two days at home. He just completed his fourth round of treatment and expects to be done by May 2024.

“It’s a long road,” he said, but added that knowing so many doctors came together to determine his best course of treatment is comforting. “I am forever grateful to be part of Team Massey.”

Group stands together in their bathing suits.

George Sushkoff (back, center) and members of his training and fundraising team, at the Swim Across America open water event in 2022. (Contributed photo)

Importance of cancer screenings

Sushkoff and his family and friends are grateful he kept up to date with his cancer screenings, which enabled doctors to find his cancer at an early, and more treatable, stage.

In the midst of it all, Sushkoff is continuing to stay active, swimming and exercising with his training group.

“I’m trying to keep things as normal as possible, but I need to be smart,” he said.

He has adjusted his swim schedules around his treatment to avoid unnecessary risks, like potential bacteria that could enter his body through his port.

“I have a mantra,” Sushkoff said. “If the needle’s not in, I can swim.”

When not swimming, Sushkoff still meets up with his training team to run or walk together, or he’ll kayak alongside his teammates as they swim.

With one in three women and one in two men diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime – and the resulting impacts on their friends and family – cancer affects everyone.

That’s clear when you hear from Sushkoff’s Swim Across America teammates.

Burgess started the team in 2020 and enlisted Sushkoff to join before his diagnosis. Burgess’ father and mother are both cancer survivors, and her cousin’s wife is currently battling a rare bile duct cancer. John Vivadelli is raising money in memory of his sister, a 25-year-old neighbor and a lifelong friend — all of whom died from cancer — as well as to honor his friend’s wife who is a current cancer warrior. Teammates Spencer Spevak and Andy Grayson are swimming in memory of a grandfather and a mother, respectively. Marty Hammer is himself a cancer survivor, like Sushkoff.

“These are just great, great people,” Sushkoff said of his friends and teammates. “They have always supported and pushed me to be better in the sport – and now, in fighting cancer.”

Through it all, Sushkoff’s teammates have stood by him, raising funds and awareness for cancer research in his honor. Team River City currently sits atop the Swim Across America Richmond fundraising leaderboard, having raised more than $49,000 this year.

Fundraising through events like Swim Across America fuels research and innovation in the fight against cancer – one lap, one raised dollar at a time. Funds raised through the Aug. 26 event in Richmond will help Massey scientists and researchers build cancer prevention programs and advance research through clinical trials.

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