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Spring 2010

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We can row Elizabeth Ostermeier, assistant women’s rowing coach, helps breast cancer survivors work out.

Strokes and strength

UB rowing program empowers breast cancer survivors

Story by Charlotte Hsu; photo by Douglas Levere, BA ’89

The most difficult year of Lisa DeMarco’s life began with a lump she discovered underneath her left armpit, and ended with chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries to remove her ovaries and both breasts. “I can liken it to a building that just implodes. That’s kind of how you feel inside,” DeMarco, BS ’90, a chiropractor in Depew, N.Y., says of her discovery in February 2008 that she had breast cancer.

Lisa DeMarco, BS ’90

Her loved ones, as well as chiropractic patients who cheered her on, helped her make it through the months of treatments, exams and operations that transformed her into a survivor in October of that same year.

As part of her rehabilitation process, DeMarco, 43, joined with UB in late 2009 to create a rowing program to help female cancer survivors build their strength and self–image. She hopes the group, WeCanRow–Buffalo, will help ensure that other cancer survivors don’t find themselves facing challenges alone.

DeMarco recalls the difference friends and family made during her own ordeal. They consoled her when she tested positive for a genetic mutation associated with increased risk for breast cancer. They stood by her when she opted to undergo a bilateral mastectomy and an oophorectomy to remove her ovaries, and, after it was all over, they helped her to heal.

“My support network was amazing,” DeMarco says. “And that’s really what gets you through it when life is as bare as it’s going to [get].

“That, to me, is what this is really all about. I had a great support network, and really what I’m hoping that this program can do is reach out to people,” DeMarco says. “It’s about survivorship. It’s about, ‘You know what? Let’s make our bodies as healthy as we can to continue to battle this disease.’

“You have to start rebuilding,” DeMarco says.

Each of more than a dozen women in WeCanRow–Buffalo is at a different stage of recovery. Those who have been cancer–free for longer inspire those who only recently beat the disease.

The group, a regional chapter of the national WeCanRow program that Olympic gold medalist rower Holly Metcalf founded in 2002, leverages UB’s strengths in athletics and public health to empower and promote healthy living among participants.

To begin, doctoral students in the UB Department of Rehabilitation Science, with guidance from Juli Wylegala, PhD ’05 & MS ’92, a clinical assistant professor, screened each WeCanRow-Buffalo member, identifying each individual’s limitations in strength, motion and flexibility, and providing information on how to get in better shape while avoiding injuries.

In winter, coaches and students on the UB women’s rowing team volunteered each Tuesday and Thursday evening, leading hourlong workout sessions on indoor rowing machines–ergometers, or “ergs”– in Alumni Arena. This spring, the survivors will train in tank facilities that mimic conditions on the water before heading out to row in real boats. Racing is likely.

The idea for creating WeCanRow–Buffalo originated from casual conversations between DeMarco and Lisa Wind, a friend who was on a dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors. Research has shown that the sport, which involves paddling in a long, canoe–type vessel, can be an uplifting experience, helping women to regain a feeling of control over their lives after suffering from cancer.

Wind and DeMarco, an avid sailor, discussed how fun it would be to row with fellow cancer survivors. Before long, WeCanRow–Buffalo was born, a product of the women’s contagious zeal.

“[DeMarco’s] e-mails alone sort of overflowed with enthusiasm,” says Wylegala, whose mother had breast cancer. “When I met her in person for the first time, it was just like, ‘How could I not be part of this?’”

The program meets members’ needs in a unique manner. Some breast cancer treatments put women at risk for lymphedema, a condition characterized by swelling of the arm, breast and chest. DeMarco, who takes part in WeCanRow, says the workouts seem to reduce swelling that she experiences as a result of the surgery she underwent.

Meanwhile, personal attention from Wylegala and her students can provide a sense of stability and direction to women who have just completed intensive cancer treatments–women who, for the first time since their diagnosis, are no longer meeting frequently with doctors and other caregivers.

“It’s wonderful so far,” says Ellen McGrath, MLS ’83, head of cataloging at UB’s Charles B. Sears Law Library and a WeCanRow member. “It’s, I would say, more than I expected it to be. I knew there would be involvement of the UB coaching staff and the physical therapy department, but the enthusiasm that those participants have brought to it has just blown me away, and meeting the other women, and having an intense workout like that, makes it just a wonderful experience on a physical and a mental and emotional level.

“In terms of recurrence of breast cancer,” adds McGrath, who battled the disease in 2005, “physical exercise and keeping fit is one of the things I feel I can do to prevent that recurrence.”

Rock music blasts from a stereo, adding to the clamor and excitement in a room where fans with giant propellers whir, turning to keep the space cool. More than a dozen women, all ages, slide backward and forward on indoor rowers, pulling, with all their strength, on the machine handlebars that mimic oars.

Students and coaches on the women’s rowing team are making rounds, instructing participants on proper posture and how to move. It is early December, and the sport is still new for most WeCanRow-Buffalo members.

The survivors sometimes exchange tidbits of information about their diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation, but the focus is on exercise. As McGrath, 50, says, “In some ways, we don’t need to talk about it, because we know, when we’re in that room, that everybody knows what we’ve been through and [has] dealt with the uncertainty, the pain, the fear.”

Still, each woman has a story. Anne Kist, EdM ’82 & BS ’76, a 55-year-old breast cancer survivor who worked for 32 years as a physical education teacher at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo, loves the full–body workout WeCanRow–Buffalo provides.

Sally Munschauer, a breast and colon cancer survivor in her 80s who was battling lung cancer when she joined DeMarco’s program, had been a rower for about two decades.

“You’re using legs, arms, the whole body. I find it very rhythmic and pleasing in that way, and very satisfying when everybody’s on the same page and all together,” Munschauer says. “There are no prima donnas in the boat who think they’re better than anybody else. That doesn’t work. Everybody has to be with it together and want to work together to get that shell moving as one. And there’s nothing better than that feeling at the start, when the coxswain tells you, ‘Ready all’... and you feel that shell lift off the water and you just take off. There’s nothing like it, and I’ve done a lot of sports.

“I want to get back on the water this summer,” Munschauer says. “That’s my goal.”

And then of course, there is DeMarco, with her huge heart and enthusiasm. Elizabeth Ostermeier, assistant women’s rowing coach, says she hopes the survivors’ narratives will help her student athletes grow stronger and face their own challenges with courage and dignity.

Danielle Carlino, a freshman on the rowing team whose mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, is one of many volunteers already drawing inspiration from the stories of the women of WeCanRow. Their resilience is astonishing, she says: “They are determined and willing to get back into shape and be fit and continue on with their lives after such a huge milestone.

“I can’t wait,” says Carlino, “until they actually get to go on the water on a boat, because every day they’re learning something new, something exciting.”

Charlotte Hsu, formerly a reporter for The Las Vegas Sun, is a staff writer with University Communications.

UB in the News

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Talking about the link between alcohol and cancer may work as a deterrent.

Forbes reports on UB research about the dangers of texting while walking

UB professor of emergency medicine says putting your cell phone down when walking may save lives.

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