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Rowing to Beat Cancer

WeCanRow is a team for survivors

| From BU Today | By Amy Laskowski
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In the slideshow above, watch the women of WeCanRow at a recent practice. Photos by Vernon Doucette

After Jeanette Millard was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy, friends warned her to take it easy. Exercise might aggravate her stitches, they said, or even worse, lead to lymphedema, a potentially dangerous condition that causes chronic swelling and often affects breast cancer survivors who have had surgery.

But after Millard read about new research that found that exercise helps rather than hampers recovery from breast cancer, she joined the Boston chapter of the nonprofit WeCanRow, which helps women who have had cancer rebuild their strength and mental focus through rowing with other women who are, well, in the same boat. The organization was originally for women with breast cancer, but today includes women recovering from all kinds of cancer.

Millard’s decision to join the group got positive reinforcement after her eight-year-old son came to one of her first rowing events. “He met me afterwards and told me that he didn’t have to worry about me anymore, because he saw how strong I was,” Millard says. “Rowing made me push myself, and it really helped me lose my fear.”

WeCanRow, which began in Boston in 2002, has strong ties to BU. University coaches, alums, and current students help support the 30 female cancer survivors who gather each week to row. Women’s crew team head coach Stacey Rippetoe invited the Boston chapter to become affiliated with BU after arriving here in 2008. Rippetoe had earlier founded an affiliate chapter in Lansing, Mich., while coaching at Michigan State. She secured permission for the women to use the DeWolfe Boathouse and the rowing tanks at the Babcock Street athletic facilities and began encouraging her squad to help coach the women.

Rippetoe says that rowing is beneficial to cancer survivors because it is not a weight-bearing or impact sport. “You can start out at a recreational level and progress from there,” she says. “It’s a wellness program with no expiration date, and it bridges the gap between being a patient and being an athlete.”

Hannah Rooney (SED’13), a coxswain for BU’s crew team, helps at WeCanRow practices during the school year.

“When I’m with them I give pointers, like technical changes,” she says. “They love it when I act as if this is a real race, yelling at them from the front of the boat.” Volunteering with the organization has been a life-changing experience for her, she says. “These women are such an inspiration and are so strong and excited about life. I aspire to have their courage.”

“Being diagnosed with breast cancer is a very solitary event in your life, because everything is focused on you,” says Boston chapter president Phyllis Groskin after a recent practice. “WeCanRow shifts your focus because you’re one of 30 women on the team—your impact makes a difference. It’s huge that in this group we can talk about our cancer if we want, or choose not to.”

Studies show that exercise benefits breast cancer survivors, says Michael Stone, chief of surgical oncology at Boston Medical Center and a School of Medicine professor. “Exercise improves breast cancer survivors’ quality of life,” he says. “In the old days, they were told not to exercise, but I think that has been largely debunked. It helps with confidence and body image, and they feel better.”

Women must get signed permission from their doctors before joining the team. In addition to their once-a-week practices, they meet monthly with a physical therapist and coaches to go over their personal fitness plan.

If a cancer survivor has a weak immune system, a splinter from an oar could lead to a blister or a cut and cause a dangerous infection, so team members are advised to wear gloves. “On other rowing teams, that would be considered bad etiquette,” says Groskin. “But if the blister or cut became infected, that could be really serious.”

A great metaphor for life
The team takes to the Charles Tuesday nights after work, weather permitting—30 women all sporting bright jackets so they are visible on the water. They pull the heavy racing shell out of the racks of boats and carry it over their heads to the water, a few yards away. Their ages span three decades, a reminder that breast cancer can strike anyone. Some are in remission; some are still living with their cancer.

On a recent summer night, the women mill about on the dock at 6:15. Coaches Alice Taggart and Molly Jordan (SSW’00) split them into two groups: the newer, less experienced rowers climb into an old blue tubby (it’s nearly impossible to tip) and the more experienced settle into a sleek, narrow racing shell.

Taggart lays out the night’s workout, called “odds up, evens down.” The women will row full speed for one minute, then take a break the next minute. “Everyone ready?” Taggart yells into her megaphone. “Sit on the square, row! Watch the woman in front of you. Short, sharp, and quick. Short, sharp, and quick. Good!”

Once they have been out on the water for a few minutes, the women begin rowing in unison. Their chatter and banter stop when they are in the boat, their focus instead on form and technique. If a rower is off in time from the person in front of her, the boat will not gain full speed.

Under Taggart’s direction, the women build up incrementally to a nine-minute sprint before easing back down to a slower pace. (In inclement weather, they use the Babcock Street rowing tanks.)

The full-body workout, a combination of sliding and pulling, uses the quadriceps, back muscles, and arms.

Rowing depends on teamwork. “We rely on each other to put forth our best effort,” Millard says. “The coaches make their lineup with people in specific seats. It’s really making a commitment to putting everything on the line to support your teammates.”

The goal of the organization is not only to help women cancer survivors bond with one another, but to renew their self-image and give them a sense of control.

“It’s a great metaphor for life: you face more challenges, and then you learn how to rise from the challenge,” Groskin says. “It’s been great to be able to lose myself in the rowing. The teamwork piece has been huge for me. Before I wouldn’t have described myself as a joiner. It’s showing me that with the right circumstances, I can be part of a team.”

WeCanRow is seeking original, rowing-related poetry and photography submissions for Rowetry in Motion, a journal that will published in fall 2011. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the program. For more information, contact rowetryinmotion@gmail.com.

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