How the Novice Intensive Gave Me Back My Name

Now, I don't want you to think about it—just make note of the first word that comes to mind when I say the word "Intensive". I am just guessing that, if you are over 50 or possibly even 45, you chose the word “care”. Having taught reading to struggling readers I can tell you that we choose that pairing because it is the combination we have experience with; our brains search for meaning through our catalog of experiences and then lands on the one with which we are most familiar. Today's experience changed that catalog for me. Maybe because, in fact, today changed me.

A diagnosis of breast cancer by definition comes with so many costs. You begin to lose things as soon as the suspicion of cancer arises. You lose your sense of security, your belief in future possibilities, and the feeling of what it is like to live life fearlessly. There are many other casualties in the war against breast cancer—some that most people would never consider.

It has been less than a year since I received my diagnosis. Doctors only have three years of medical school before beginning their residencies. I feel that, like those fledgling doctors, a year in the medical system as a patient has taught me a lot about how the medical establishment works. I will make a point of tallying this up but, for the moment, I will guesstimate that due to hospital protocol I have been asked my name and birth date over 200 times in this past eight months. Early on, I joked that the gift that I will give anyone in my life who receives this diagnosis is a t-shirt with their name and birth date printed in a bold typeface that they can wear to each appointment. What I didn't realize then was what the cost was to me of this seemingly benign, repetitive hospital practice designed to keep patients safe from careless mistakes and corporations safe from litigation. Because I was asked my name and my birth date before every blood draw-IV drip of dangerous chemotherapy agents and each targeted blast of radiation, I have come to associate the things that are most me—my name, my identity—with cancer. Just like our natural inclination to pair “Intensive” with “Care”.

Because a rowing coach and a teacher formed a bond that even cancer could not break, I woke up this morning at 5:00 a.m. to pack and repack my bag of gear, water shoes, gloves, yoga pants, knit cap, rain gear, hydro flask, extra socks, and as many nerves as a gym bag could tote. I did this despite the fact that it is April 27th and there are more than five inches of snow expected to accumulate in a freak late-season snow squall. Extra jacket? Check! I did this because today is the ROW Novice Intensive. I did this because today we go out on the water! I did this because the last time I packed this bag It contained a heating blanket, coloring books, candies to combat nausea and as many nerves as a gym bag could tote because I was heading off to chemo sessions that would begin at 8:00 a.m. and end at 5:00 p.m. and I did not want the story to end there.

One of the first things I learned about breast cancer treatment is that it utilizes a team approach. If you are lucky like I am, at the first fuzzy mammogram you go into team development. Fantasy football has nothing on choosing a care team. Surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, pathologists, therapists, and nurses fill the roster, but through ROW I get to add a whole different kind of coaching staff to my team.

Today, as we were gathered in a circle in the boathouse, looking out at the ripples on the river and waiting for the snow to fly, Coach Austin asked us to say our names, and I believe he truly cared to know, and in that moment and on this day he gave me back my name. Today my name is associated with this river, this sport, these people and this team. So you know the more that I think of it, “intensive” and “care” still work together and in this context, are every bit as healing.

I will always remember that my first row was in the snow.

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.