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Write On Ottawa: Stories of courage in cancer fight

By Alejandro Bustos on November 1, 2015

rsz_front_cover[1]For almost two decades, the Ottawa-based Busting Out dragon boat team has been offering inspiration and hope to women who have survived breast cancer. While there is no age limit to join (members range in age from their mid-30s to early-80s), all team members must have completed cancer treatment, and also recovered sufficiently to be able to be part of the team.

Inspired by her fellow paddlers, Busting Out member Shelagh Needham (who joined the group in 2000) decided to write All in the Same Boat, a collection of life stories of 45 fellow team members plus herself.

At least 25% of the proceeds of each book sale go to Breast Cancer Action Ottawa (BCA), a local charity that has the aim of enhancing the life of breast cancer patients and survivors. (The rest of the proceeds go to cover printing costs which come out of Needham’s pocket).

Given that winter is coming and that local waterways will be frozen, it should be noted that BCA has many activities during the non-paddling months, such as belly dancing, yoga, stretching and aquafitness. That being said, Busting Out members also maintain their fitness during the off season in preparation for dragon boating in the spring, summer and early months.

Moved by Needham’s work, Apartment613 sat down with the Stittsville resident to find out more about her project. Below is the transcript of our email interview, which has been edited slightly for length and size.

Apartment613: What impact does Busting Out have on team members?


Shelagh Needham

Shelagh Needham: Busting Out has a huge impact on team members. Once the doctors and nurses have finished your treatment you are shown the door. Your friends go back to their lives, you’re cured, right?

You feel as though you’re been hung out to dry – where’s your support group gone?  And that’s where the team comes in.  It was started by Dr Don McKenzie, a sports medicine specialist at UBC. It began as a small research study because at the time it was common practice to tell women not to engage in strenuous upper body exercise after surgery for fear of developing lymphedema, a swelling of the arm.  The team was launched independently in 1997.

Apt613: What does the word “Cancer” mean to Busting Out members?

SN: It’s one of the scariest words in the world. I asked some of the team members. Absolute terror, I’m going to die. The wait between having a biopsy and getting the results is almost scarier. How do I tell my kids? How will the family manage without a mother?. All these thoughts run through your mind. What if it’s cancer? How will I cope? Each person relates it to their own lives. Having supportive family and friends provides a cushion to cry on.

A few years ago two young children stood on the dock holding a bunch of flowers for their mother who was paddling for the first time. I will always remember that. Sadly she died. Younger women have so much estroegen in their bodies. But another team member (Brigitte Davidson, see book) was diagnosed in her 20s, told she would never have children, and today has a wonderful 15 year old son and is doing well herself. . . .

Apt613: What is Breast Cancer Action?

Logo21SN: BCA is a local, community based organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for breast cancer patients, survivers and their families through practical help, emotional support and education.  BCA is the umbrella organization under which Busting Out operates, but it also offers so much more.

Many of us began our cancer journey by contacting BCA. Perhaps we took a pre-op session or fitness classes, where we met others going through the same thing.  Maybe checked out the library or picked up pamphlets.  There’s a book club and workshops.

Some of its members go out into the community and explain to woman (and  sometimes men, who can also develop breast cancer) about risk reduction and self examination.  At times people have turned to BCA for support and they have connected them with a peer support person.  We are fortunate that BCA is here for us, “because no one should face cancer alone”.

Apt613: So men can also get breast cancer?

SN: Yes, men can also get breast cancer, much to their surprise. I imagine spotting the cancer is difficult as men aren’t aware they can develop breast cancer until it has progressed. Our last team member was Peter Jones who sadly also developed prostate cancer and passed away a few years ago. I felt it was very brave of him to join a team of women.  He wasn’t allowed to paddle at festivals, being a man in a women’s only festival, but often steered for us. He is also remembered for falling in the Ottawa River at the Ottawa Festival just as the race began!

Apt613: What surprised me while writing this book?

Photo taken from Breast Cancer Action Ottawa web site

Photo taken from Breast Cancer Action Ottawa web site

SN: Several things caught my attention while I was writing the book (which took two years to complete).  Firstly, persuading people to be interviewed. I thought it would be so simple but they were extremely hesitant.  Finally I sent individual emails. Often people would say “But I’m just not interesting” which is never true. Oh yes, we have women who have hiked in the Himalayas, but frankly that’s not the norm and if I only wrote about those team members I doubt I’d get much response from the general public. So I cajoled, flattered, pushed and finally we finished up with forty-six stories.

Secondly, we all have a story. The secret is uncovering it. I think the profile on Wendy Hill is a good example of a very ordinary life. Except I often laugh when I think of her cat careering down the corridor on the back of her mom’s wheelchair every morning or the phone ringing off the hook as her grandchildren scamper around.

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