Embracing the Power of Sport: How Women With Breast Cancer Find A New Identity As Athletes


At Recovery on Water (ROW), the tangible powers of team sport have been uniquely repurposed. Here, they are the driving force behind an unlikely support group that invites members to get fit, fight back and have fun along the way.

The Chicago-based nonprofit rowing team is comprised exclusively of athletes who have received a breast cancer diagnosis—some are in active treatment, others have been declared “cancer free,” and still others are living with metastatic disease, but none of them is willing to let a diagnosis define their life, and so ROW is where they find the means to reclaim their bodies and sense of self.



Why Sport & Athletics for Breast Cancer?

Studies have shown that light to moderate exercise can reduce the risk of breast cancer recurrence by up to 50 percent; and for those with late-stage diagnoses, the same exercise can help mitigate the effects of treatment while improving lymphedema symptoms and bone mineral density. At the same time, social environment and interpersonal connections—or lack thereof—have been shown to factor heavily into overall survival rates and quality of life after diagnosis.

ROW’s distinct team sport aligns these powers of fitness and community in a transformative new way, and for almost 12 years it has set them apart as an empowering leader within the nation’s breast cancer community.

Life beyond breast cancer treatment is a challenge that few are naturally prepared to meet. Faced with physical scars and potential limitations, lingering fears of recurrence, and a “survivor” label that may not fully resonate, women are left to their own devices when navigating what comes next. It is often at this stage in their journey that women find ROW, and they discover a group of peers that sees them as more than a survivor or disease victim. Inside the ranks of this rowing team, women are challenged to transform not just their bodies but also their perception of their bodies; they train year-round through indoor and outdoor rowing programs, learn how to move forward with their lives stronger and healthier, and commit to being part of a team that will only succeed when every woman pulls together.



The Transformation of a ROW Athlete

ROW programs are designed to meet every athlete where she stands. Novices are often new to fitness programs in general and to team sport specifically (much of the current ROW demographic graduated college before Title IX paved the way for greater opportunities in women’s sports), so they are given ample time and space to prepare their bodies for the rigors of rowing while preparing their hearts and minds for the demands of being a teammate.

Between the start and finish of their novice year, ROW members increase their weekly activity by up to 61 percent, and a recent impact survey found that 96 percent of participants credit ROW with helping them maintain a healthy body weight. But in that very same time span, another interesting transition takes place: Women who joined the team seeking community around their breast cancer journey become more solidly fixed on their new identity as athletes and rowers. Certainly, they remain advocates for themselves and the breast cancer community at large, and many of them campaign around critical movements like metastatic research and breast health awareness, but they also begin to shine in the light of team camaraderie and physical accomplishment, and it becomes a part of their identify that they wear with great pride.



The Power of Sport Pays Off

Rowing is unlike any other team sport, because it demands that everyone in the boat move together as one. Pacing. Stroke rating. Strength of the drive. Everything has to be precise and in sync. This also means that one person’s absence can be felt by the rest, and that absence can carry unique weight among the members of Recovery on Water. ROW athletes arrive searching for a way to reclaim their bodies from breast cancer and support from those who understand their journey and its challenges. What they discover is physical strength and stamina they never knew they had and a team that will help them push across the finish line, whether that finish line is at practice, a regatta, or in another round of treatment. 

Recovery on Water is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To learn more, visit www.RecoveryonWater.org.