What does rowing mean to me? by Vickery Kehlenbeck

These remarks were delivered at the 6th Annual Women’s Row at Community Rowing, Inc. on September 20th, 2015

I’m Vickery Kehlenbeck, and I row with a GS2 group at here at CRI. Tracey has asked me to take a few minutes to tell you what rowing means to me.

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No one is happy to get a cancer diagnosis. It’s not a “gift”. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be grateful for good things you wouldn’t otherwise have experienced.  And to say that I’m grateful for rowing is a huge understatement.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2011, at age 57. I had finished treatment – the whole megillah – surgery, chemo and radiation – by the following January. My physical recovery was on schedule, but I was discovering that the emotional recovery would take much much longer.  They tell you this will happen, but it’s difficult to comprehend how hard the process is until you get there.

Like many cancer patients, I felt I had lost control over my body and indeed over my life – knowing there are probably undetectable cancer cells still floating around in my body, the possibility of new cancers, recurrence or metastasis – those were, and are, very scary.   I lost any sense of trust in my body, in my future, both whether I had one as well as what it might look like, in my post-chemo brain, even in knowing who my friends were, since some people I thought were friends disappeared, while mere acquaintances stepped up.  If that was the “new normal”, I wasn’t interested! But I thought if I tried to do something new and challenging, I might able to look forward to being strong and engaged once again.  Survival is a great thing, but I wanted to move beyond surviving to living.

Enter WeCanRow, a national wellness program specifically designed for breast cancer survivors, started here in Boston by Holly Metcalfe. My father rowed, my brother rowed and my son coxed, so I had spent a lot of time on muddy riverbanks, and when someone suggested WeCanRow it seemed fated – maybe rowing was in my genes!  I never would have dared take a class at CRI (shows you how little I knew about CRI at that point) but WeCanRow looked like a good place to find a new but gentle challenge.  

Fast forward – once I got in a shell I was hooked. With the support of great coaches and women who understood what I was going through, I felt at home in a boat and couldn’t get enough time on the river. That fall I came to this wonderful gathering for the first time (now one of my favorite events of the year) and was thrilled to find myself part of a larger community – I was a ROWER! The next year when I retired I joined CRI and Avalon, happy for more time on the water and new challenges like coxing and racing.

Without my diagnosis I never would have tried a new sport, being too busy with the rest of life.  But three and a half years later rowing has reconnected me with the pre-cancer Vickery, and even with the pre-raising kids and practicing law Vickery.  The one who played D-1 sports, said “sure – let’s go for it!”, organized professional events, tried parasailing, was one of the first women at my historically male university and was often the only woman in the conference room.  I’ve regained my enthusiasm for trying things I’ve never done before or am afraid of – like going up in a hot air balloon, or even, last spring, coaching in a high school crew program, which was great fun except for operating that damn launch.  

My future is no more certain now, and a flashback of anxiety or panic jumps up to bite me sometimes when I least expect it, but rowing is helping me come to terms with the uncertainty. To borrow an image, the disease has become like a shadow – I know it’s always with me, I can’t make it go away, but I don’t have to look at it all the time!

But why is rowing such a perfect fit for those dealing with such shadows? As you all know, rowing, unlike the field sports I played years ago, requires everyone in the boat to work as a single unit – both physically and mentally – to do the same thing at the same time, over and over again.  I pace my stroke watching the back of the person in front of me, trusting that the person behind me will do the same with my back. Holly well understood how the demands inherent in rowing – the focus on keeping your “head in the boat”, the discipline, the structure, as well as the exercise, would enable cancer survivors to benefit physically and emotionally. To look at that shadow less often.

Through rowing I have relearned to trust other people, to allow them to trust me, to believe once again that my mind is clear and that my body will respond when I ask it to do more, and to trust that my rowing friends, and you are many, will stay with me “in sickness and in health”, if you will.  These lessons continue to sustain me in the on-going transition from surviving to living.   And for that, I am and will always be profoundly grateful.

What Does WCRB Mean to Me?

By Dr. Nancy J. Roberge, Physical Therapist who works exclusively with breast cancer patientsNancy

WCRB represents the epitome of ‘thriving’ after being treated for breast cancer. These women, some who have rowed before cancer and most who have not, show us that they are ready to ‘take back’ their lives, their bodies and show breast cancer who is really in charge. They are such an inspirational group and I am in awe of their tenacity and courage and I am honored to work with them.

What WCRB represents to those that have walked this journey is that they can march to hell and back and not only survive but they can thrive beyond what they might have been before the diagnosis. Breast cancer is but a mountain that these women climb and once at the top, they can more fully realize the magnitude of their courage. This is what WCRB helps these women to see more clearly, their strength and commitment to themselves and a healthy, strong body and life.

As a Physical Therapist, who works exclusively with those diagnosed with breast cancer, when I see women row, it is like the frosting on the cake. They work hard to get through the rigors of cancer treatment and then, they can enjoy the reward of their efforts. Gratifying to all to see them row! Go for the gusto I say…….and if cancer shows it’s ugly face again, I know these women will rise to the level they need to in order to kick it’s ass again because I have seen them do just this!

Masters National Cancer Survivors Boat

WeCanRow Members Race at the Row for a Cure Regatta

Masters National Cancer Survivors Boat

 On Sunday, June 2nd, six of the WeCanRow-Boston members raced in the annual Row for a Cure regatta in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The event features 1,500-meter sprint races in 28 cities across the United States and Germany. All funds are donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure to assist patients and families in local communities. The WeCanRow-Boston boat came in 2nd place in their race, beating four other masters and high school women boats! Congrats ladies!

Rowers, as seen from left to right: Martha M, Ann M, Kearney, Vickery, Christin, Jeanette, and coach/coxswain Sally O’Conner.

Making Strokes Against Breast Cancers

Making Strokes Against Breast Cancer

In September 2011, WeCanRow-Boston initiated the first-ever, Making Strokes Row to accompany the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides Walk. We received a lot of “love” from the crowds as we rowed alongside thousands of walkers in our specially decorated barge. Watch for more innovations in our Making Strokes Row 2012! “

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