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By Doris Parker
President and Founder, WeCanRow DC
The dozen or so women gather on the porch overlooking the Potomac, as they do every week. They are breast cancer survivors who range in age from early forties to mid sixties. Some have had mastectomies, others lumpectomies. Many have been through chemo, radiation, reconstruction. A couple are still in treatment. One has metastatic disease. This is their support group.
After a few minutes of greetings, asking each other about their jobs, kids, how their last check up went, they are ready to get down to business. Together they take the stairs down to the dock and get the oars and other equipment out of the boat bay. They set up the launch with safety gear and get their water bottles ready. This is a support group with a difference; it is also a crew team. These women are rowing their way to recovery. They are the WeCanRow DC team.
WeCanRow DC is in its second season at Potomac Boat Club in Georgetown. Most of the participants were introduced to rowing through the annual Learn to Row weekends that WeCanRow held in May of 2005 and 2006 at Capital Rowing Club. Others were on crew teams in high school or college and have renewed their rowing post-cancer with the rest of the group. The group continued their progress at Potomac Boat Club beginning in June and now, after a summer of rowing together, they were getting ready for their first regatta as a team.
WeCanRow DC is a local chapter of a national organization based in Boston. The founder of WeCanRow National is Holly Metcalf, a world champion in rower and an Olympic gold medalist in the sport. After helping a friend return to rowing after treatment for breast cancer, Metcalf teamed up with the Dana Farber Institute to study the effects of exercise on recovery from common treatments associated with breast cancer, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and breast reconstruction. Although the research is not complete, the expectation is that exercise in general, and rowing in particular, will prove beneficial both physically and mentally to those in recovery.
The women practicing at PBC are not waiting for the results to be published. They already know how rowing makes them feel. Strong is a common adjective, as are empowering, healthy and joyous.
“Sometimes when I’m out on the river rowing, I am ageless.” writes Beth, a 4 year survivor who started as a novice at the 2006 Learn to Row weekend. “I don’t have a past or a future. I don’t have a life. I just row. Yes, I still would love rowing even if I hadn’t caught the Zen of it. But what a bonus. What a tremendous, joyous bonus.” Diane, battling advanced breast cancer and also a 2006 beginner, recently told the WeCanRow DC organizer, ” I think this will be a new phase of life for me and I am so grateful to be able to begin a team sport (at my age) where all are at the same starting point. Rowing made me feel so healthy and alive. I love it!”
Because rowing is the ultimate team sport, this experience is also bonding these women in a way that is new to most of them. They must work together, move in unison, feel connected. This is the aspect of rowing, they are finding, heals the spirit as well as the body. Cancer is an isolating disease; rowing brings them into a community of support. They must push and pull, swing and catch, go through all the physical, and often demanding, movements of rowing. And they must always do it together.
On race day, a recent Saturday in September, the WeCanRow DC team again gathered at the boathouse. Nine of the WeCanRowers form this team, 8 rowers and a coxswain. Nine very different women, single and married, lawyers, teachers, business owners, soccer moms and grandmothers board their rowing shell named the Charlotte Hollings, grab their oars and launch off the dock. What they have in common, breast cancer and rowing, is what brought them to this place and this day, a day they must row as one.
“As I pushed off the PBC docks for our first WeCanRow race, never in my life did I think that I’d ever row in a breast cancer survivor boat…” says Bev, a 3 year survivor who returned to rowing after breast cancer. “This race was one of the most important races in my life – a reminder that one can thrive after cancer and come back even stronger than before. This was a race of promise, of a bright future, of friendship, of teamwork, of courage.”
“What a privilege to be in a position to help, encourage, push and, I hope, inspire a strong group of courageous women who remind me that I am not alone,” remarked Nancy, a 4 year survivor who served as coxswain for the race. “Each and every one showed concern about the others; teamwork was elevated to an even higher level.”
Before they even reached the finish line, this team of survivors, with their pink shirts and wide smiles, had already won.
WeCanRow DC is a year-around program with a mission to introduce breast cancer survivors to the sport of rowing for the purpose of physical and emotional recovery, fitness and support. The Learn to Row program is held annually in May at Capital Rowing Club in Washington DC and the summer rowing and winter conditioning programs are hosted by Potomac Boat Club. For more information, please contact Doris Parker at email@example.com