On Monday evenings, as the sun sets on the Schuylkill River in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, you can see women in pink shirts and baseball caps rowing down the river in groups of two, four, or eight. Some are moving swiftly, while others are getting their bearings, guided by a coach in a skiff alongside them. All are part of WeCanRow, a national program founded in Boston in 2002 for breast cancer survivors.
WeCanRow gives these women the opportunity to become active participants in their cancer recovery. Together, they build strength, rediscover the joy of movement, and become part of a mutually empowering team. Rowing helps these survivors improve their physical and mental well-being.
WeCanRow – Philly
In 2018, WeCanRow – Philly found a home at the Whitemarsh Boat Club in Conshohocken. The group began with a handful of participants, facilitated by Dale Parenti, a Philadelphia-based graphic designer, rower, and breast cancer survivor. Today, the group has more than 30 active members of various ages and fitness levels who find the group physically and mentally energizing. Those who have no previous rowing experience find it easy to immerse themselves in the thrill of the sport. Learning something new seems to spark their energy and distract them from their diagnosis.
“When I was first being treated for breast cancer, I joined Hope Afloat, a dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors,” Parenti says. “I hadn’t exercised regularly in probably 20 years by that point. I was too busy raising children and building my career, and I didn’t prioritize myself or my body. Suddenly, exercising three times a week made a dramatic difference in my mental health. My mood suddenly lifted, and I felt like myself again. The team environment made it easy to commit to the regular exercise in a way that going to a gym on my own would not have.”
“A lot of breast cancer survivors often feel betrayed by our bodies when we are diagnosed with cancer, especially when we’ve taken good care of ourselves,” says Sue Ryan, PsyD, a psychologist in Collegeville and WeCanRow member. “When we row, we have to make friends with our body again. It gives us an appreciation of how our body works and how we can be in rhythm with others. When we have a good row together, it’s an exciting feeling. We also build friendships on the river and see others who may or may not have gotten through this journey with different issues. It gives you context.”
Well-being Beyond the Boat
Rowing as a team creates strong personal connections. According to Parenti, “the women of WeCanRow support each other on and off the water. Bonds form around the experience of being teammates and fellow cancer survivors. They learn to work as a team and realize they’re not facing any challenges alone.”
A cancer diagnosis can affect your peace of mind, so rowing can be a great distraction. “Rowing requires such focus and concentration that it’s not possible for the mind to wander,” Parenti notes. “Worries, stress, and fears are all left at the dock. Once you’re on the water, those problems are forgotten.” Of course, spending time in nature is good for your mental health. Being on the river, watching ducks swim by and birds land on the rocks, with the sound of oars slicing through the water can be therapeutic.
For many women, dealing with a breast cancer diagnosis is socially isolating. It changes how you see yourself in relation to others. Rowing helps breast cancer survivors improve their physical and mental well-being. With WeCanRow, the women learn how to support each other as rowers first, then as survivors. “Rowing gives us an identity other than being a patient,” Ryan says. “Our chant at the end — ‘We Can Row!’ — this is something we can do that is an identity apart from having had cancer.”
For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.