Row to Recovery: Team of Survivors R.O.W to Fight Cancer

It could be one of the greatest weapons to keep cancer at bay. And you wont find it in the doctor’s office.

It’s called R.O.W -- Recovery on Water -- and it's a real crew team made up of breast cancer survivors with one goal: to make sure cancer never invades their life again.

They are believers in research that shows their risk of recurrence could be cut in half by exercise.  Even without any experience, they are drawn to what they feel are the healing powers of rowing weekly on the Chicago River.

"It’s not about cancer out here. I feel strong and empowered," said Jennifer Grimes, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago.  "I just hope I don't tip the boat over because I'm new." 

Grimes, now 30 years old, ran seven marathons before being diagnosed and going through the horror of treatment while watching her girlfriends get married.

"It’s been a huge gift," she says of R.O.W.  "It’s kind of like cancer for me, hoping to get to the finish line."

But ROW is not a sit-around support group talking about cancer, founder Jenn Gibbons stresses.  A young woman with boundless energy, she leaped at the opportunity to help others by way of her own passion.  She’s a crew coach at St. Ignatius College Prep. The school provides the boats. And with student volunteers, it makes R.O.W accessible and free.

"I didn’t know how it would be in the beginning.  It’s such a unique sport," she said, beaming how the program has evolved beyond her expectations.  "When we go to races, they don’t want to be the breast cancer team, they want medals!"

The women on the team range in age from 29-65, and while they row on the water once a week, they also train indoors.

"It’s really cool to seem them become athletes right in front of my eyes," said Gibbons. 

At 63, Marybeth Pierce is finding a new piece of herself. At the time of her diagnosis, four of her six children were getting married, and she had to part with her mother who lost her own battle to cancer.

"It was hell," Pierce recalled.

And then she found R.O.W. One of the recommendations from doctors, she said, was to be with people and do things you like to do.

"I took that to heart.  That was as important as any prescription," she said, adding that the combination of physical and mental healing with R.O.W is powerful.  "We’re talking about cancer, but also doing something about it."

The camaraderie and teamwork is immediately apparent, Gibbons said. 

"I think seeing them grow as a network is really a rewarding piece that I never planned for."

Pierce, trying to control her emotions, sums it up this way:  "I have grown to love the women on my team, but I don’t want anyone I know to join the team." She pauses and adds: "because of the qualifying factors."

"We just want our loved ones cheering on the sidelines," she said.

Now Jenn and her tireless self is planning the next hurdle. She plans to row across the Atlantic Ocean by herself to raise money for R.0.W. to make sure it is around for all women who need it.

"It’s an amazing organization, I love what I do!" Stay tuned, as the oar turns.

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