The words “magical” and “total badassery” aren’t typically used to describe cancer support groups. But that’s exactly how Tara Hoffmann refers to the sport of rowing and her experience with Recovery on Water (ROW), a team based on the South Branch of the Chicago River comprised entirely of breast cancer survivors. A breast cancer survivor herself, Hoffmann joined ROW as a participant during her cancer treatment in 2016 and has since progressed to a leadership role as the ROW Programs Manager.
Founded in 2007, ROW is the result of the shared vision of a high school rowing coach and a breast cancer survivor. The idea was to empower women currently in or recovering from breast cancer treatment with a full-body workout to stay active and regain strength, while also finding a new community. In the early days, it was a “small and scrappy organization,” Hoffmann says, with about eight women participating, volunteer coaches and borrowed equipment.
Fifteen years later, ROW now counts around 80 women on its roster and offers year-round training on and off the Chicago River under the guidance of professional coaches. The group competes in events, including the 42nd Annual Chicago Sprints Regatta earlier this month at the Lincoln Park Lagoon, and offers a four-day rowing camp in northern Michigan each June. Water training takes place April through October, and indoor rowing machine training and virtual fitness programs are available throughout the year.
“Exercise is the perfect prescription” for many of the side effects that individuals in or recovering from cancer treatment face, says Hoffmann. She emphasizes that for breast cancer in particular, studies show that exercise is one of the best ways to lower one’s risk of recurrence.
“It set the stage that I could continue to be active during treatment.”
Rowing is an especially appealing option for those who have undergone treatment for breast cancer. From a physical standpoint, rowing is an ideal activity for improving an individual’s cardiovascular health and range of motion. ROW coaches are trained to work with athletes who may experience treatment-related issues such as cording, lymphedema and neuropathy. Hoffmann also points out that it’s a low-impact, full-body workout and is easily scalable for a wide age range.
Reflecting on her own experience with breast cancer, Hoffmann explains that she felt “powerless and passive as a patient.” She joined ROW at the recommendation of her physical therapist and was able to participate through her cancer treatment process. She says that rowing helped her endure the side effects of her treatment. “It set the stage that I could continue to be active during treatment,” she says.
ROW’s physical component is a big draw for those who may feel less interested in traditional conversation-based support groups, says Hoffmann. Many women who join ROW identified as athletes pre-diagnosis and see the sport as a way to reclaim that part of their identity beyond “cancer patient.” But that’s not to say that ROW isn’t for beginners—Hoffmann emphasizes that all levels are welcome, and participants can sign up with zero prior rowing experience. Professional coaching provided in the program ensures that all athletes remain safe while building skills and confidence both on and off the water.
While ROW’s primary focus is the physical sport of rowing, it also provides opportunities for much more than physical recovery and strength-building. Hoffmann describes ROW as a “stealth support group,” explaining that heartfelt conversations and team bonding happen organically as the group trains together. “We are a cohesive team, where everyone has similar experiences,” Hoffmann says. “ROW provides a network of peer support.” These emotional connections can help the athletes work through some of the psychological side effects of cancer, such as loneliness, isolation and fear of recurrence.
It’s common for ROW teammates to form a tight-knit community, Hoffmann explains. They show unwavering dedication to the team despite challenges from ongoing treatments, surgeries, recurrences and other obstacles. With several years under her belt both as a ROW participant and now Programs Manager, Hoffmann says that she holds immense pride in the entire organization. “The athletes deal with so much, and they continually overcome. I’m so proud of all of them.”
For more information about ROW, visit www.recoveryonwater.org.