Living a life after cancer can be more challenging for many people than coping with the disease and treatment side effects. You move from a very structured clinical regime back into a life where so much may have changed. For many, just getting through the day with less strength and energy than before can be very challenging. Issues around employment may also exist, so although we are all grateful to be surviving, that is far from the end of the story. The need to take up new challenges becomes quite common, as the reality of the true meaning of time hits home. When ‘life changing’ is talked about with cancer it is no overstatement! For me it feels like I have a totally different identity now, whilst working in the cancer support sector. A bigger contrast to what I used to do I can’t imagine. Cancer support is changing dramatically, as the challenge of ‘survivorship’ is at our door. It is time to think outside the box to help people deal with their cancer experience. I was delighted to be contacted by Freya, who tells us the fresh challenge that she found that has now changed her life, and I am delighted to feature such a lovely story.
‘Suck it up, princess. It’s a watersport.’ I laughed. A big belly laugh. The sort I used to laugh before I got sick. And I knew I’d found the thing for me and the group of people I wanted to be with.
When I finished chemotherapy I was surprised how weak I felt. Walking upstairs wiped me out so much I’d have to sit down on the top step to get my breath back, and I was asleep on the sofa by 8pm most evenings. There’s plenty of information about coping with fatigue while you’re going through treatment but there’s not much on what to do to rebuild your health and fitness after treatment – which is when many of us need a helping hand. It was an ad that grabbed my attention: ‘We’re not just about timing and technique – paddling and chatting take equal roles.’ WaveWalkers, London’s first dragon boat team for people affected by cancer, was holding an open day. I had no idea what a dragon boat team was but I liked the idea of doing something completely different and I loved the idea of being on the water.
I replied to the ad and a few days later Deryn, the team captain, rang to explain what was involved. She told me the open day was to attract more paddlers in London and to host Rowbust, a visiting dragon boat team from Canada. Getting a diagnosis and going through treatment is full of First Times: first time you’re told, first time you tell someone else, first time with treatment, first time with side effects. But there’s nothing like the first time you’re with a group of people who’ve been where you’ve been and who know what it feels like. At the open day, the WaveWalkers team made me feel welcome with lots of chat, about food, friends and family. But very little chat about diagnosis and treatment – which suited me fine. This was a team focused on the future, not on the past.
I took part in a safety and warm-up session, was kitted out with a buoyancy aid and a paddle, then it was time to get in a boat. A dragon boat seats up to 20 people, sitting beside each other, with a helm at the back of the boat and a coach at the front. But I knew none of this as I clambered on board and was given a crash-course in how to hold the paddle and move it through the water. ‘If you feel tired, just take a break’, my Canadian paddling partner whispered. We pushed off and Rowbust’s captain called out a few instructions which my paddling partner quickly explained for me: ‘Lean forward, put the blade of your paddle in the water, copy how the woman in front of you moves, rest your paddle flat on the water.’ Slowly, the instructions started to make sense, my nerves left me, and I started to enjoy feeling part of a team.
When I felt out of breath I stopped paddling and watched the team move together. It was a beautiful day, clear blue sky with a few puffy clouds and very little wind. ‘Feeling OK?’ my paddling partner asked, as I began paddling again. The boat moved smoothly through the water, people calling to each other and sharing jokes. One woman asked who was doing all the splashing and our coach called out: ‘Suck it up, princess. It’s a watersport.’ I laughed until I cried and realised how much I’d missed laughing, or crying, like that.
Back on dry land, I thanked the Canadian team, accepted their kind comments on how well I’d paddled and hurried off to find WaveWalkers. They’d been talking about a recent trip to take part in Vogalonga, an annual event in Venice for non-motorised boats. I wanted to know more about the trip and whether I’d be able to go next time if I started training. Now. Right now. I joined WaveWalkers. I trained in sun, wind and rain – at Docklands and on the Thames. I paddled 30kms in Vogalonga in May 2015. And I enjoyed it so much I’ll be doing it again in May 2016. But this time my partner will be paddling in the team with me.
Because that’s one of the things that I love about WaveWalkers. Everyone is included: some of us are in treatment, some of us have finished treatment, some of us have lost loved ones, some of us have cared and supported people in treatment. Some of the team have had breast cancer but some of us haven’t. I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other paddlers have had different diagnoses. But we all enjoy paddling – and we spend a lot of time laughing! I’m glad I took the chance to try a new activity and my life is better for having WaveWalkers in it.
WaveWalkers train at Docklands Sailing and Watersports Centre in London, and at Longridge Activity Centre, near Marlow.
For more information about WaveWalkers: http://www.wavewalkers.co.uk/, https://www.facebook.com/Wave-Walkers-Dragon-Boat-Team-363541383733922/, https://twitter.com/WaveWalkersDB
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