Diane Cotting believes two things saved her life after she was
diagnosed with breast cancer: Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's
Cancer Center and the sport of rowing.
The 50-year-old Bostonian received local and national media
attention in October 2000, when she formed a team for the city's
Head of the Charles Regatta consisting of eight rowers and a
coxswain who were all breast cancer survivors. Naming their boat
"One in Nine" - for the number of women who will develop breast
cancer at some point in their lifetimes - Cotting's all-female,
pink-uniformed squad was the inspirational story of the event.
What the television cameras captured, however, was only a small
part of Cotting's tale. After feeling a lump in her breast during
her monthly self-examination in April 1999, she endured four
lumpectomies, a mastectomy, lung surgery, and numerous other
procedures during the next several months. She missed an entire
season with the Style Driven Rowing Club on which she competed, and
feared she would never be able to participate in the sport again.
When she did make it back a year later, she had a new appreciation
for both the fellowship she found rowing and for her caregivers at
Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women's Cancer Center (DFBWCC).
"I always had a goal to get back out there rowing," says
Cotting, a 5-foot-1, late-blooming athlete with an infectious smile
and iron will. "My Style Driven teammates pushed me to get through
rehab, and while I was undergoing treatment, the doctors, nurses,
and everybody from the parking attendants on down at Dana-Farber
and the Brigham made me feel like I was the only patient they
had. My husband, Norm, was also with me through it all."
Surgical oncologist Carolyn Kaelin, M.D., and medical oncologist
Ursula Matulonis, M.D., oversaw Cotting's care at
DFBWCC's Gillette Center for Women's Cancers, with Charles
Hergreuter, M.D., of BWH performing her plastic surgery. According
to Matulonis, Cotting's belief that "rowing helped save my life"
was not so far-fetched.
"Those who are in better shape physically and emotionally tend
to do better in chemotherapy," says Matulonis. "Studies have shown
that exercise during chemotherapy does lessen side effects. For
post-menopausal women, keeping lean and trim lessens the chance of
developing another breast cancer."
Psychiatrist Laurie Rosenblatt, M.D., of DFBWCC's Adult
Psychosocial Oncology department says there are also documented
mood benefits to physical conditioning that can help with a
patient's recovery. "Cancer is a disease of multiple losses, be it
the loss of hair, a breast, or your sense of physical integrity,"
she explains. "Conditioning is one way of getting their lives
Rosenblatt warns, however, that recovering patients often have
less "reserve energy" than before their cancer treatment - and
should act accordingly. Another major risk for breast cancer
patients is lymphedema, a swelling in the arm caused by excessive
fluid build-up after lymph nodes in the underarm are removed or
treated with radiation. Lymphedema is thought to be spurred on by
repetitive motion, so Kaelin recommends patients consult with their
physician before attempting sports such as rowing.
"Exercise is beneficial, but it needs to be individualized for
each patient," says Kaelin. "If a patient wants to get back to the
form of conditioning she did before, she needs to tailor that
exercise program to minimize the chances of lymphedema. Once you
get lymphedema, you always have it."
Cotting knows the risks and respects her doctors, but she says
nothing was going to keep her from rowing. Now back with the Style
Driven team, she is working with her coach, Holly Metcalf, and
trainer, Abigail Peck, to develop a post-operative program for
breast cancer patients that includes conditioning with rowing
machines and a rowing camp where survivors can forge friendships
"We want to give women in recovery an opportunity to rebuild
their bodies, learn to trust their bodies again, and work with the
inner strength they have found from battling this disease,"
explains Cotting. "We want to help them get back to their regular
lives stronger than ever."
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