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From Treatment to Training: Cancer Survivors Take on the Charles for the First Time

By Elisabeth Hadjis
Posted on October 22, 2023
From Treatment to Training: Cancer Survivors Take on the Charles for the First Time

Lori Boersma rows in the second seat of the Survivor Rowing Network boat in Saturday’s Grand Master Women’s Fours race. (Photo by: Ben Crawley)

Seven years ago, while fighting cancer for the second time, Lori Boersma nearly died.

It was 2016. While undergoing chemotherapy treatments, the 62-year-old Fairfield, Conn. native caught a severe case of the flu and pneumonia. Her health rapidly began to decline.

“I was in septic shock and my organs started to fail,” said Boersma. “I was dying, so they put me in a coma because they couldn’t save me.”

Boersma would not accept that fate. Against all odds, she woke from the coma after 54 days with a renewed sense of determination, prepared for a long road to recovery. Five weeks into her rehabilitation journey, she stumbled upon a poster about a local rowing club and decided to give it a shot. Boersma has been rowing ever since, making her Head of the Charles debut yesterday in the Grand Master Women’s Fours race.

“A miracle happened to me,” Boersma said, referring to her unexpected recovery. “That was five and a half years ago, and I haven’t missed a week.”

Boersma is competing with the Survivor Rowing Network, an organization launched in April of this year aiming to bring more cancer survivors into the sport. In addition to Boersma’s Fours boat, the network also competed in the Grand Master Women’s Eights race.

The 12 rowers are all cancer survivors, brought together by Rowing Cares, a Connecticut charitable group that’s been a presence in rowing and cancer recovery for 30 years. Friday’s practice session was the team’s first time sitting in a boat together.

The Survivor Rowing Network boat placed 19th in the Grand Master Women’s Eights race this weekend, their first time racing at the Head of the Charles. Photo by: Ben Crawley

While the primary mission of the network is to bring cancer survivors together through rowing, the exercise component is just as important, said Beth Kohl, a rower, cancer survivor and the president of the Survivor Rowing Network.

“We know the value of rowing as an all-body workout,” Kohl said. “It’s just something that’s incredible for our mental fortitude, for emotional growth.”

The benefits of rowing for those recovering from cancer apply to their physical wellness, too. Studies have shown that the sport can help former patients avoid complications during their remission, as well as improving their general health and quality of life.

In Boersma’s case, becoming a rower has brought a sense of community and camaraderie unlike any other, while keeping her in good health and holding her cancer at bay.

“I met this group of women in my mid-fifties who will now be lifelong friends on and off the water,” she said. “The confidence…I mean, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in my entire adult life at 62 years old. It’s crazy!”

At the races on Saturday, both crews finished in 19th place. Participating in a competition of this scale has been a memorable experience for the Survivor Rowing Network’s members.

“I’m really overwhelmed by the generosity of the Head of the Charles organization for welcoming us with open arms and open hearts,” said Kohl. “The emotion is very high and just the realization of what they’ve accomplished is tremendous.”

By Elisabeth Hadjis
Posted on October 22, 2023