Guest Post: Meet Me at the Finish
“It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy is the resistance of the water… But that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support and make you strong in overcoming them.” - George Pocock
There is an old saying that, “Time flies when you are having fun.” This would lead one to assume that the opposite is also true—that time somehow stands still in the absence of fun. But anyone who has ever received a cancer diagnosis knows that is not true.
It was during my second visit to the surgeon that I received my agenda: A calendar of treatment events with an end date that seemed impossibly far off into the future. As soon as the surgery was completed chemotherapy would begin, and it would last for one year. A year of living dangerously that would be like no other. A year in which I would lose my hair, my eyebrows and my eyelashes, and most of the sensation in my feet, and I would gain radiation tattoos and burns.
Along the way I had support from friends and family and even strangers. I had colorful knit beanies stitched by Girl Scouts who could only imagine what it was like to be bald and cold, and I had people take turns sitting with me while IVs dripped for hours. But as the year wore on, my helpers wore out. A year is a long time to sit vigilantly by. Those who remained with me often asked the same question: What will you do to celebrate treatment being finished? I have read of wonderful vacations, new cars, makeovers and many other ways people celebrate the end of their treatment. I had no answer for this, and it felt like I had a long time to think about it.
Recovery on Water (ROW) came into my life in March, just as radiation ended and I was halfway through my year of living dangerously. ROW taught me how to row, sure, but they also gave me a bunch of very good reasons to row, plus enough support along the way to make sure that I stuck it out. ROW gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. ROW let me add something to my agenda that was every bit as therapeutic but a lot more fun than any of my other treatments. It was the thing I did in between doctors’ appointments.
One day after practice, our coach gathered us all into a tight team circle, and he told us about racing season. He told us a bit about the races that were coming up and asked if anyone was interested in racing. For interested parties, he instructed us to sign up and get our benchmarks done. But come on! Racing? Me? I did my benchmark. Then I sheepishly filled out my intent to race survey indicating two race choices. This, I decided was going to be my gift to myself. This would be how I would celebrate the end of treatment.
The last race of the season—one of the two I expressed interest in—was slated for mid-October, roughly coinciding with the last date on my chemo agenda. A few weeks later we got the word that that race would not be happening. I was disappointed but could not sulk for too long; this upsetting news was immediately followed by the racing lineup for the upcoming weekend and I was in it. As I considered the idea of racing on a Saturday when chemo was on Tuesday, I couldn’t help but think of the three-day effect, which everyone knows about. It was not lost on me how ironic it was that the race in which I’d be competing is named the Tough Cup Challenge.
When I got to chemo that Tuesday, the doc stopped in to see how things were going, and she asked the nurse to check the schedule. They realized then that the last date on my agenda in October was for my post-chemo checkout and planning and that, in fact, my last round of chemo was slowly dripping into my arm as we spoke.
There were no pink balloons, and the only fanfare was a hug from my oncologist and this last day photo.
It was then that I decided that I could write the best finish to this year by climbing into that boat on Saturday despite the fact that three days post chemo brings some aches and pains and a tired that only those who have been there can know. I would bring new meaning to “finessing the fatigue.”
Our novice racing crew gelled from the moment the lineup was announced. We shared jokes, inspiration and playlists, and the unofficial mantra of our squad became, “Meet me at the finish.” As anyone who has been in a boat knows, the finish is an opportunity for all eight to find each other and sync up.
Without knowing it was happening, that is exactly what this team did for me. It is said that in a crew boat you row for the others in the boat with you. At the Tough Cup, it felt like this crew rowed for me! This crew, these coaches, this coxswain—they all met me at the finish of something big, and crossing that finish line to the cheers of family and friends standing on the shore was the very best ending to a year of chemotherapy. It was a year all right; a year in which I transformed from a patient into an athlete thanks to ROW.
So, it seems George Pocock was right about a lot of things when it comes to rowing and life. "The very problems you must overcome also support and make you strong in overcoming them.” And ROW, and my team, gave me a great story about how I celebrated this milestone.
Author Note: Lauren Berk joined ROW in March 2019. This is an original story that she provided to ROW, and it has been published here with her permission.