Row to Recovery: The Galway women using the River Corrib to move beyond their cancer diagnosis
31st Jul 2021
Robin Winkels, Eva Brady, Amanda Dempsey, Yvonne O’Callahan and Carol Nash
A crew of women in Galway have been meeting at the River Corrib twice a week to row together to aid their recovery from cancer. Maygen Bazemore meets them to discover that the benefits far exceed the physical
“We didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew we wanted to do something to get back physically to where we’d been before cancer,” says Carol Nash, one of the founding members of Row to Recovery.
“Row to Recovery, based at the River Corrib in Galway, is a survivorship rowing programme for women battling breast cancer. The programme, which started in November 2013, offers a unique opportunity for recoverees to meet and row twice a week, building up their strength, mindsets and friendships with others going through a similar experience.
Watching these women glide through the water in their pencil-thin, elegant boat, I find myself hypnotised by the rhythmic movement and the silky sound of the oars cutting through the calm water. The scenery too in this part of the world is so serene with its river herons and swans, but what captivated me most was the obvious camaraderie and closeness of the crew.
“Rowing crews usually have a rule of no talking in the boat,” says Carol. “We have an unspoken rule – there is no silence in our boat! The banter never stops. When we sit into the boat and push out the oars, we leave our normal everyday world behind for two hours.”
The programme was created after sisters Martina McWalter and Therese Mongon were searching for a way to help Therese with her cancer recovery. They had heard of a study in Canada that showed that dragon boating helped reduce swelling in the upper arms of cancer patients (a dragon boat holds 22 passengers who pair up and row side by side).
The River Corrib’s currents are too fast for dragon boating, but the sisters surmised that the repetitive arm movement involved in regular rowing would also be effective in aiding recovery. So they contacted Robin Winkels, a local rowing coach, to help them start a programme of their own. “As we didn’t have a template for this type of programme, it has been participant-driven from the start,” Robin explains. Robin herself has four siblings who were diagnosed with various forms of cancer, so she was delighted to get involved. The newly minted team of three soon met Carol Nash, and the four set out to learn to row together.
Today there are 18 Row to Recovery members ranging in age from early forties to late sixties. “I always describe Row to Recovery as the silver lining in my cancer cloud,” member Eithna Joyce says with a smile. “Because if I didn’t have breast cancer, I would have never had the opportunity to meet these women and to row.”
Apart from the physical health benefits, the mental and emotional benefits are what keeps everyone meeting at the water. Crew member Ascinta Kilroy says since she joined in 2015, she’s enjoyed getting to meet all the wonderful people in the programme: “It’s been the best experience of my life,” she says.
But the physical health benefits are an important factor too. The laborious work of rowing is a low impact sport that targets the upper arms, core, glutes and leg muscles, according to coach Robin. It works areas of the body that are often weakened through surgeries and treatments in breast cancer. “After my surgery, I had a very invasive reconstruction, and I really had no strength in my abdomen,” Eithna says. Now, roughly three years after picking up an oar for the first time, “I am almost better than I was before the surgery,” she says.
According to Martina McWalter, several crew members have had lymph nodes removed in their upper arms, which can present further problems in their recovery process. The rowing, she explains, offers a great source of relief for the ladies, as the action of rowing promotes lymphatic drainage.
These 18 women are in different stages of life and hold their own stories of supporting loved ones with cancer or facing their own battles. Regardless of differences, Robin says it’s easy to see the strength in the crew’s relationships because of the vulnerability amongst them. “This is a place where they don’t have to be strong for their children, they don’t have to be strong for their families. Some mornings, we just go down to the river at 9.30 for a good cry.”
Members say the one tie that initially brought them all together is the last thing on their minds when they’re rowing. “The strange thing is, we never talk about breast cancer,” says Fiona McBrierty, who joined four years ago. The tight bonds formed in the group have led them to do more than their twice-weekly row at the river. “It’s about having the craic, it’s about having the tea and scones… it’s about going for walks, going for drinks and weekends away,” Carol says. “It’s not all about cancer.”
Row to Recovery looks forward to their plans of continuing to grow, welcoming men and women with different forms of cancer and different stories. The programme wants to launch rowing clubs in other parts of Ireland as well. “We’ve just been awarded charity status, so we’ll have more autonomy,” Robin says, explaining that with this status, Row to Recovery can create their own, relaxed standards of rowing and raise money to rent more boats. “We have people on a waiting list that we will be able to welcome to the programme.”
The crew encourages everyone in need of support to try Row to Recovery, regardless of rowing experience. “I just find it physically, mentally, emotionally just a really lovely experience,” says Emer Fitzpatrick, a member of two years. “And we’re all in it together.”
After listening to their stories, seeing their smiles and feeling their vibrant love, I’ve decided Row to Recovery is probably the most captivating experience on the River Corrib. The survivorship programme is obviously about far more than merely surviving cancer – it’s about living and loving life.
Visit cancer.ie to see how you can support the Irish Cancer Society. For more information on the Row to Recovery programme, contact [email protected] This article was originally published in IMAGE Magazine in 2018.
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