Friday, March 12, 2010

Recovery on Water

My friend Cancer Bitch suggested last year that I join a group called Recovery on Water, a rowing team for cancer survivors. I was intrigued (having grown up on the bougie I-95 corridor, crew was very big, though I was too busy playing equally bougie sports like filed hockey and lacrosse to ever learn to row), but at the time she suggested this, all I could think about was my upcoming surgery, and I promptly put it out of my mind. Persistent bitch she is, she invited me recently to attend the group's open house, which I did on Sunday.

I was a bit skeptical, I must admit, not the least because ROW is a group for cancer survivors, which is most certainly something I'm not. Would I feel like an impostor? A wolf in sheep's clothing? Does my trauma -- my voluntary removal of my breasts -- qualify me to join this group of women who've collectively beaten cancer? Will they be mad at me I got the chance not to get cancer? Will I know the secret handshake? (This is hardly the first time I've considered my identity as a previvor and wondered if I'm somehow less than a survivor. You can read more about my concerns here and here.) Turns out I'm not the first previvor on the team (B, who also works at UofC, and I met last summer and are going to carpool to practice on Thursdays), but I'm definitely the exception rather than the rule.

Despite my concerns, I felt I belonged. Here was a group of women brought together by cancer. And whether we had it or only had the extreme likelihood of getting it, we're bonded by this disease. Sure, I never had breast cancer, but it still changed my life. I met some amazing women: a young mother in her early forties whose breast cancer has metastasized to her lungs, a twenty-something who is battling uterine cancer (likely caused by Tamoxifen, the chemoprevention drug she was prescribed after her first bout with breast cancer), an older woman wearing a lymphedema sleeve. And though I felt a little unworthy in their presence -- after all, they had been through so much and all I did was have my breasts removed -- I still felt bonded to them; their fate could have been my fate. I can't castigate myself for not having had the experience of cancer; I had the experience of not having cancer, and that's not necessarily nothing.

I was also dubious about physical act of rowing. After all, how do you get a bunch of ladies who've had their chests biopsied, radiated, operated upon, and/or reconstructed to propel a boat? Next week will mark three months since my surgery, and my first thought, defeatist though it might be, was "I can't do that! My new boobs! My fragile, fragile new boobs! Won't someone please think of my boobs!" But that's exactly where the empowerment comes from. This isn't your average let's talk about your feelings cancer support group -- there are no gently titled heads, pursed lips of concern and empathy, hands on neighbor's knees. We row even if -- and maybe because -- we think we can't. We've had our bodies betray us, and rowing helps us take the power back. Plus, once I saw women three decades my senior on the ergometers, I knew I had to try.

We had a rowing machine in our house growing up (right next to the Nordic Trek that became a clothes rack and the treadmill I was the only person to ever use), and it turns out I had been doing it wrong all these years. There's a movement to it -- a lean back, a lean forward, a knee bend, and push -- that I'd been doing in the wrong order. But nevertheless, when I stepped onto the machine, I discovered most of the power comes from your legs, not from your chest or arms. And after a minute or two, I forgot about my fragile fake boobs. I had so much fun and felt so welcomed, I knew this was something I wanted to try.

Last night, I attended my first practice. The group meets in raw space (it's not pretty -- it looks more like a building that's about to be rehabbed than an abandoned warehouse, but it's covered in dust and filled with construction materials) in the West Loop; it's jarring to see two dozen ergometers, several Nautilus machines, and racks of free weights in this otherwise unfinished building. It looks like health fanatics are squatting there. (In actuality, the space belongs to the crew team of a local high school who allows ROW to use it for free, and since free is the key word, no complaints here.) I left sweaty and covered in construction dust. (Note to self: bring a towel next time).

I also got my ass handed to me by women much older than me. I confess I thought, even after the open house (during which women sort of casually floated back and forth on the ergometers, and the whoosh of the fan was only quiet background noise), that this would be gentle; after all, we're former cancer patients, right? Wrong. It was hard core. This did not look like a group of women who'd been to hell and back. I even forgot for a moment that we were all here because of cancer until I looked over during our ab circuit and saw the concave chest of the woman lying next to me. I made it through the workout but was humbled to recognize I'm going to have to practice and commit to this if I want to be as good as some of the ladies who've been way sicker than me. And I'm up for the challenge. It's a great workout. Today I feel tight but not sore, and my abs, which have lain dormant for lo these many months, tingle as if to remind me, we're still here.

But the real appeal is still, of course, the women. I rowed next to Cancer Bitch, and between pulls, we gossiped about publishing (I'm a book publicist and she's a writer, so we know a lot of the same people), cancer memoirs (she wrote one, I'm working on something in the same vein but a little different here), and other scholarly topics. After practice I introduced myself to a young women whose rowing technique I admired. She asked if my short curly 'do was my "chemo hair" (when her hair grew back after treatment, it came back curly) and I explained that I hadn't been through chemo but had just recovered from a preventative mastectomy, and she seemed to accept and admire my choice. I told her I wanted to learn more about rowing from her, but I also want to get to know her story, her struggle, her triumph. There is so much I can learn from these women, and I hope they can learn from me, too.

In the afterglow today, all I can think is of the silver linings. I'm coming up on my one-year anniversary of learning my BRCA status, and I'm a different person, physically and emotionally. I'm also truly lucky to have met so many wonderful new friends and been exposed to so many new opportunities and adventures. When I began this journey, I thought I was all alone, and now, literally, I'm part of a team. Never thought I'd take up rowing, but I've done lots of things in these last twelve months I never thought I'd do, and this seems like one of the better options I've been given. Give up your tits, join a team. Sign me up. I'm hooked already.