Disease has no sense of timing. Such is the story of Mary Beth Pierce of Chicago. Diagnosed at the age of 65 in 2007, this busy mother of six and then grandmother of one, first noticed a painful left underarm, but was told by her doctor it was of no concern. Later in the spring when the lump was still there, a mammogram and other tests determined it was indeed breast cancer: IDC (Infiltrated ductal carcinoma), Stage III. Mary Beth underwent chemo and radiation while her mother was battling terminal gastric cancer. As a poster child for “no time for breast cancer,” Mary Beth helped plan four of her children’s weddings while dealing with her treatment and her mother’s illness during the next 15 months. She seemed to sail through her treatments with no particular complications until the fall of 2008 when she developed lymphedema.
By her own admittance, Mary Beth said that because she was so busy during her own treatment, she didn’t have much time to think about things, but when lymphedema hit, it nailed her; an outward physical manifestation of a breast cancer side affect that she was totally unprepared for after her treatments. She thought she was in the clear. All the past family stress seemed to manifest itself in this outward symbol of pain and struggle. Her arm, wrapped and oversized with swelling as her lymphatic system tried to drain excess fluid in her affected arm, became her unwelcome badge of breast cancer survivorship. The stares from people and “what happened?” questions ripped off the scab of family and personal turmoil for her. Dealing with “it” was personally more of a challenge than the chemo, radiation, surgery or treatments during breast cancer. But lymphedema turned out to be a gift when she least expected it.
Mary Beth walked into a room one day and someone asked, “Do you have lymphedema?” Intrigued that a stranger would initiate a conversation with this correct diagnosis, Mary Beth struck up a conversation and in turn learned about a team of breast cancer survivors who row – Recovery on Water (ROW). “That’s the team I want to be on,” she erupted and proceeded to call Co-Founder Jenn Gibbons to learn more. Before she knew it, Mary Beth was on a boat, terrified and invigorated at the same time. Yes, ROW was the gift that came after breast cancer and because of her lymphedema.
When Mary Beth talks about ROW, she rambles on and on enthusiastically about her teammates, the camaraderie, the mantra that breast cancer is not an excuse and the sense that ROW members can share anything with each other and not feel out of place. Whether it is someone shouting out, “I think I want a new boob for Christmas,” or just needing a shoulder to lean on, this group of kindred women doesn’t use breast cancer as an excuse for anything. And Mary Beth enthusiastically shares that ROW has changed her life. From new relationships to new commitments, the first time being on a team, feeling stronger and making her believe in something she can do, awareness of what women need and don’t ask for. She believes that knowledge is power and this group of women is her social dimension for fighting this disease. Mary Beth also calls ROW her “team of care” and states that when you are floating a bit, the team grounds you. She loves being on a team of good for the social, fund raising and awareness, as well as personal benefits.
She has tales to tell about regattas they’ve competed in, locker room stories and personal limitations exceeded, but mostly Mary Beth Pierce calls lymphedema the “gift of breast cancer” as it led me to ROW.
Recovery on Water began as a collaboration between Sue Ann Glaser, an Evanston breast cancer survivor, and Jenn Gibbons, a rowing coach at Ignatius Chicago Crew (ICC). Jenn enlisted ICC student volunteers to attend practices to help lift boats and assist while receiving community service hours for their time at practice. She began hosting weekly practices in the winter months of 2007, and the first group of women began practicing on the water in the spring of 2008.
ROW is a support service and exercise program for women who are currently in treatment or have been through treatment for breast cancer. Their program is rooted in research that exercise can reduce cancer recurrence by 50%.
ROW practices four days a week, 12 months a year, instructing survivors in their 30′s through their 60′s. There are no fitness requirements for joining our program and members are not expected to know how to row when they join. ROW is funded by our board, member dues, events, grants and individual donations and gifts so that all survivors are able to join our team. ROW is proud to be the leading resource for Chicago’s survivors as they get fit, fight back, and have fun. For more information about Recovery on Water, visit www.recoveryonwater.org.