Dealing with cancer once is something that would be a Herculean burden to shoulder for almost anyone.
For Lori Boersma, it’s only half of the story.
“I’ve had breast cancer twice,” she said. “I’ve had it on both sides. And I had a bit of a struggle the second time around where I was very ill and in a coma for a couple of months.”
She was in a coma 54 days, to be exact.
But along her journey to recovery, Boersma found a new passion when she made her way to the water and picked up rowing. This weekend, she’ll be part of two boats rowing for the Survivor Rowing Network at the Head of the Charles Regatta.
Rowing Cares, a non-profit focused on mobilizing the rowing community to battle cancer, launched the network earlier this year to help introduce rowing to survivors, and connect survivor rowing programs with those seeking to start or grow a program. The regatta will be a debut of sorts for the network. And for everyone in the organization, being on the Charles River will be about a lot more than just finish times.
“So, we host a lot of different events, but we’ve never actually entered a race with survivors. First time ever,” said Beth Kohl, executive director and board president of Rowing Cares, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. “So, the fact that we’re doing it with two boats with 12 survivors is amazing.”
The boats will have coxswains from MIT on board, part of the support that Holly Metcalf, head coach of the Engineers women’s openweight team, has provided.
Metcalf started We Can Row-Boston in 2002 as a wellness and recovery program for women who have been treated for breast cancer, so the cause is close to her heart. She hopes that one day the institute can help be part of the solution to the disease.
“What I love about being here is students are visionary. And big world problems, they want to solve them. So maybe here at MIT one of my students may have an answer to getting rid of cancer,” she said. “That’s here. It’s all about finding answers through collaboration and that’s what rowing is, it’s a collaboration of mind, of body. So, I can’t think of a better place.”
The two boats feature rowers who hail from all over the country, from California to Connecticut. Friday will be the first time they will all be together at the same time.
Victoria Madden, who will be in the Grand Masters Women’s 4+ event with Boersma, knows it will be a special experience.
“I think it’s gonna be so emotional,” she said. “The disease itself is just really tough. And then to go through this recovery process, both the mental and the physical recovery and having this support group around you and knowing that there’s other people around the country… we’re all just helping to bring each other up.”
No matter what happens on the water at the regatta, both Madden and Boersma hope the team can help people find what’s been so life changing for them.
“Well, we’re hoping that they can see what it’s done for us and how we have thrived after our recovery and our cancer and that it’s there for other people too and we are hoping that we can share that with other cancer survivors,” Boersma.
Madden admitted that when you’re in treatment for cancer, it’s hard to see past the present. But being part of a rowing program has been the start of something for her and others.
“Cancer is not good,” she said. “But there is life after cancer and a very fulfilling and exciting life, actually. And we hope that people see where we’ve come [from]. And we’ve been in their shoes before.”