Rowing Through the Storm, Women Share Cancer Journey

Rowing Through the Storm, Women Share Cancer Journey

By Eugene Curtin

The rising sun, an oft-used metaphor for renewal and hope, carries vivid meaning for a group of women who gathered at 5:30 a.m. twice a week, for six weeks, during the summer.

Stronger Together Rowing is a three-year-old program led by two Creighton rowing coaches and by members of the current women’s rowing team. They invite women survivors of cancer, and women currently being treated for cancer, to gather for support, friendship and a dose of healthy exercise courtesy of the ancient sport of rowing.

As the rising sun paints pink and golden hues across the landscape, they gather at the edge of Carter Lake near Omaha’s Eppley Airfield while their younger members, or Creighton rowing student-athletes, carry the heavy boats from the boathouse to the water.

Joy Dobrauc, BA’02, and Bree Rochford, BSW’09, both formerly competitive rowers for Creighton and now associate rowing coaches at the University, monitor the proceedings. They’re not looking to develop competitive rowers, of course. They are simply building a support team in the face of a health challenge that statistics show will impact 17% of women.

“We work with women who are survivors of all sorts of cancers, and also women who are in treatment for cancer,” Rochford says. “Most people don’t have any rowing experience, so there is an introduction to the equipment and to technique before we do any rowing at all.

“Some people ask if it’s a support group. I think of it as an active recovery group. We’re not standing in a circle and talking about our experiences, although that of course can certainly happen. But it’s not the main focus. The focus is on coming together, teaching one another and learning from one another.”

Dobrauc, while a coach, is also a survivor. Diagnosed with breast cancer about two years ago, she joined the Stronger Together Rowing program and found a group of women deeply committed to encouraging one another on the path to recovery.

“This was a nice group of ladies already there to help support me on my journey, and so that first summer I participated as both a participant and a coach,” she says. “It’s a great group of women — cool, just a cool experience. Cancer’s a terrible thing, but this is an opportunity to participate in something special.”

Stronger Together Rowing is modeled after a Chicago-based national program called Recovery on Water, Dobrauc says. Unlike that program, however, it is not limited to women who are survivors of breast cancer but is open to women survivors of any cancer.

“We wanted to be a little more inclusive,” Dobrauc says. “But we pretty much copied what they do — imitation, I suppose, being the highest form of flattery.”

Stronger Together Rowing is sponsored by Nebraska Cancer Specialists, one of Nebraska’s leading oncology practices, a sponsorship that has enabled the purchase of training equipment as well as helping to cover operational costs.

“They are very supportive of wellness programs for survivors and individuals who are battling cancer,” Rochford says.

Although little data exists from randomized trials detailing the relationship between cancer survival and physical exercise, observational studies suggest a clear advantage, according to Peter Silberstein, MD, professor of medicine in the Creighton School of Medicine and chief of hematology/oncology at CHI Health Creighton University Medical Center – Bergan Mercy.

“In multiple observational studies in breast cancer survivors there is a 50% reduction in the overall death rate and a 28% reduction in death from breast cancer in the most active versus the least active survivors,” he says.

“In people with colon cancer, studies showed about a 50% reduction in colon cancer mortality in those patients with higher levels of physical activity. These studies were controlled for stage, colorectal risk factors and Body Mass Index (weight).”

Judy Gale, DPT’02, now retired but formerly an associate professor and vice chair for Creighton’s Department of Physical Therapy, stepped in the boat just this year — 17 years after a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Informed about the program by a friend, Gale says she was happy to join a program stressing physical exercise.

“As a physical therapist, I know how important exercise is in dealing with cancer to maintain strength, flexibility and mobility,” she says. “However, I didn’t know exactly what to expect that first morning of rowing as we gathered in the dark.

“What I found was a wonderful group of women. There were the cancer survivors, the coaches, many of the young women currently on the rowing team, and even some alumni of the team. All were there to share the experience, and quickly became my friends.”

Rowing, an Olympic sport since 1900, has its techniques, of course, and Gale says learning those was part of the fun.

“It’s hard to describe the feeling of slowly — very slowly in my case — learning to row, learning the language of rowing, using muscles not frequently tapped, moving in unfamiliar ways, finding joy in occasionally actually rowing correctly and synchronously,” she says.

“The very best part, other than the fact that none of us fell out of the boat, was the amazing people, every single one of them, who were so kind, so caring, so encouraging and so funny.  We laughed a lot, sometimes so hard it was difficult to row.

“And all this as the sun came up.”

Interested in learning more? Contact Bree Rochford at