“I believe every day we are alive is a gift – and I never take it for granted,” says two-time Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor-now-thriver, Lauren Chiarella Mika. Nearly six months into remission and only three months into her new job, Lauren discovered another lump at her collarbone. Having to go through an ever more rigorous round of treatment the second time around, including an autologous stem cell transplant, thankfully Lauren knew she was in the best hands possible, and persisted with patience and strength. The fatigue was real, but fitness ultimately saved her life. Now, living cancer-free for over ten years, she’s found a way to meld all of her passions together – fitness, event production, fundraising, corporate wellness and cancer advocacy – and started her own business, Chi Chi Life. To learn more about her journey and how giving back to the community has been her great joy in the face of cancer, see our latest In Her Words below.
*Photo by Luna Peak Company
Name: Lauren Chiarello Mika
Age: 35 Location: New York, NY and Ridgefield, CT
Current Health Status: Remission. 10 years.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in about an hour north of Manhattan in Westchester County. I was raised by two loving and compassionate parents, have one older sister, Jenn. Jenn is married and has 3 amazing kids. I am married to my love, Russ – and we recently bought a home in Connecticut, where we share our time.
I have a deep passion for travel. It expands my heart and mind. I truly enjoy learning about different cultures and immersing myself in new environments. My husband and I foster service dogs in training, through a program called Puppies Behind Bars. The dogs are raised by prison inmates and eventually paired with a war veteran with PTSD. We help to socialize the pups – introducing them to new environments, people and sounds
I am the founder of NYC-based, Chi Chi Life which melds my passions: fitness, event production and fundraising, corporate wellness and cancer advocacy. A graduate from Villanova University with a degree in Accounting and Marketing, I have 13+ years of experience fundraising and producing events for non-profits, for-profits and agencies – including Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
I am a 2x cancer thriver who supports, motivates and teaches rock stars who value the importance of strengthening the mind and body. I teach Barre, Pilates and TRX classes at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, exhale and Flex Studios. I work privately and in companies. I have completed multiple half and full marathons while fundraising $125,000 for cancer charities.
When were you diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma?
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – Stage 2A – when I was 23 years old. My biggest symptom was itchy skin – which landed me in the dermatologist's office. I also felt a lump above my collarbone – which felt like it was getting bigger over time. Turns out it was an enlarged lymph node. After a series of doctor’s appointments, needle and tissue biopsy, I received my diagnosis. This was in December 2007.
What were your first thoughts when you were diagnosed?
I want to live.
How did your friends and family take the news?
It’s hard to hear that someone you love and care about has a life-threatening illness. They were scared, yet very supportive. I had an incredible system of cheerleaders that truly lifted me up during this life hurdle.
Describe your treatment and how you arrived at that course of action.
The first time around, I went through six months (12 rounds) of ABVD chemotherapy and was in remission for six months. This is when I started working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). I interviewed for that job in my wig and never said anything about being sick because I wanted to be hired for just being me – and I was! Three months into working at MSK, I relapsed. I had just run my first half-marathon for cancer research, and that weekend I felt a lump on my collar bone again. Round 2! I had two pre-conditioning chemotherapy treatments, a stem cell collection, two weeks of radiation and an autologous stem cell transplant. I was in isolation at MSK for six weeks. Recovery, this time around, took nearly a year.
Were you able to work through treatment?
My treatment the first time was less rigorous, and I received my chemo before work and then, I headed in. The second time around, I couldn't work – and had to take a leave for 6 months.
Where and how have you found the best care?
The first time, I went to a private oncologist who had worked at MSK for 17 years – and, BONUS(!) – they took my insurance. The second time, I was an employee working at MSK – and I was treated there. I was in the best hands in the world.
Have you received any additional support or alternative therapies?
During my hospital stay, the Integrative Medicine team visited – bedside yoga, massage therapy and music therapy. All helped to ease the challenge of being in isolation.
What or who have been your biggest supports? Who makes up your cancer tribe?
My family and friends – hands down. Even strangers. When I was in the hospital, I needed many blood transfusions. My sister was 9 months pregnant and couldn’t visit very much. She spearheaded a blood drive on my behalf – people from all walks of my life came out to donate. It was truly moving – touched my heart – still does.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of the experience for you?
My body becoming deconditioned. The fatigue was real and lasted a long time. At times, it was all-encompassing. I learned patience – and bit by bit, I gained my strength back. Fitness changed my life and my teachers inspired me to become a teacher. Now, movement is ingrained in my every day – and I strive to share the passion I have with others by motivating them through exercise!
What is one thing you wish you knew before you were diagnosed?
You are stronger than you even know.
Is there a particular mantra or inspiration that helps you?
My mantra is: Yes, you can. I believe that everyone has the ability to lead his or her best life. We must be relentless in the pursuit. Cancer taught me that.
If you could offer a woman, who has been newly diagnosed, some words of wisdom for her journey, what would you tell her?
Be kind to yourself. Advocate for yourself. Surround yourself with people who lift you up. You got this!
What are you most proud of in your cancer journey?
Giving back to the community. Since my treatment, I have completed 7 half marathons and 2 full marathons while fundraising for various cancer charities – Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Fred’s Team for MSK and First Descents. I am a Patient to Patient volunteer and advisor at MSK. At MSK’s Nurse Orientation, I share my experience from the patient perspective. Additionally, I offer support and provide insight to current patients and their caregivers as to what they may expect during treatment. Finally, I recently started teaching fitness at MSK’s Integrative Medicine Center, a true full-circle moment.
How has Hodgkin’s Lymphoma affected your outlook on life? On illness?
No day but today. Let’s squeeze the juice out of life – every day.
How have you changed?
I have such a deep gratitude for this precious life. I believe every day we are alive is a gift – and I never take it for granted. When we can approach life from a place of gratitude and abundance our hearts will be full.