Finding sisterhood in breast cancer survivorship

 

KIM BRIGGEMAN kbriggeman@missoulian.com

Nary a ripple marred the surface of Salmon Lake on a warm September evening.
This was a couple of Tuesdays ago, after the Labor Day rush, and the only sound was from passing cars and trucks out on Highway 83.

Suddenly, from around the point to the south, a lone, long canoe of some sort appeared.
Ten paddles on either side, manned by 20 paddlers, dug in inspiring unison, dug again and again.
“1-2-3-4-5-6-7 and faster,” the woman standing in the back called.
“Reach-reach-reach,” Nan Condit urged. “Your pain isn’t special, ladies.”
And it wasn’t. Dragon boat racing isn’t supposed to tickle. Neither is cancer.
It was the last training night of a summer of 45-minute drives from Missoula to Salmon for the Silver Lining dragon boat racing team, Montana’s first official breast cancer survival team.
Come the weekend they’d be in Bigfork, competing in the Montana Dragon Boat Festival on an inlet of Flathead Lake. There they would cap their second season of pain, triumph and empowerment with a silver medal, the team’s first in its short. ” It was a great weekend,” Condit said.

There’s a difference between thriving and surviving. It’s on Patti Craveiro’s mind every day.
At 71, Craveiro is Silver Lining’s oldest paddler and perhaps its most appreciative. She was 61 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer; 69 when the physician in Bend, Oregon, delivered the dreaded words a second time.
This time it was multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer for which there’s no cure. But it’s treatable, Craveiro is quick to point out. After undergoing a stem cell transplant in Portland in March 2018, she moved to Missoula to be near her daughter. She discovered Silver Lining through another cancer thriver and unlikely dragon boat paddler. Craveiro calls Tima Jones Erickson her “Montana bestie.”
They were on a boat in Bigfork last weekend that included at least three women in the throes of chemotherapy, radiation or reconstructive surgery. Two paddled with the discomfort of recent mastectomies. Another was wearing a compression stocking on her arm to reduce the swelling of lymphedema.
“We paddle with the hope that circulation will help bring that fluid out,” Craveiro said. “But we’re alive. We call ourselves the ‘lovely livers.’ We are the living ones, and we’re really grateful.
“I feel like I’m striving to thrive with cancer, not just surviving.”

Dragon boat racing began more than 2,000 years ago on the rivers of southern China. It’s been in Montana for less than 10 years. Condit first stepped into a dragon boat in 2016 — and found a calling. She’d finished chemotherapy in March 2014 and said she was “trying to find my normal again.”
“You kind of have an anger, sort of a fierceness that you’ve lost something,” she said. “I was angry.”
In the spring of 2015, she and a few friends from chemotherapy treatments had begun getting together, drinking wine, “and really just talking about survivorship,” Condit said.
“We’d always been athletes. I’d raced bikes and one was a runner, and so on, and we were like, how do you come back? Because your body’s not the same at first. It took me three years until I felt like I was kicking on all gears, including cognitive.”
The core five women grew into seven, then 20. Condit realized they were helping each other fill a glaring need.
“It was really the universe talking,” she said.
Treatment centers have breast health navigators, medical professionals who help cancer victims through treatment. But there are no navigators for afterwards, said Linda McCarthy, who had to miss most of the season’s practices at Salmon Lake because of her busy schedule as director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership.
After 18 clean annual mammograms, contamination was detected in McCarthy’s left breast in January 2015. In the ensuing months she had a biopsy that removed two lymph nodes, a lumpectomy, radiation treatment and a double mastectomy. Between breast surgeries she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She sports a scar where her thyroid was removed later in the year, and she’ll take thyroid medication every day for the rest of her life.

“When I finished treatment they were just like, ‘OK, you’re done. See you later,’” she said. “And you’re like, what do you mean, see you later? What’s next? You’re left to just fend for yourself, and it’s very disheartening and scary.”
She was soon swept up by Condit’s fervor. One of the early cancer thrivers in the group was Esther Chessin, who succumbed to breast cancer two years ago at age 52. Chessin had a membership at The Loft on West Main Street, and the growing group met there on a monthly basis. Condit began inviting guest speakers to address the various concerns. Both practices continue today.

Mary Johnson remembers standing at the bottom of a long flight of stairs.
A lumpectomy and radiation eradicated her cancer in 2017. It’s the medications that have kicked her butt.
Johnson eased into Silver Lining.
“I think I first found myself thinking I don’t belong in this group because I didn’t have to go through chemo. Mine was caught early,” she said.
But she found herself standing, with trepidation, at the bottom of the stairs at the Loft during a monthly meeting.
“It sounded like crazy women up there,” she said.
She climbed up into a whole new world, one that led her to a place Johnson never dreamed she’d be: sitting on the bottom of a dragon boat, paddling her heart and pain out on lakes in western Montana.
Her body hurts. She’s had panic attacks. Johnson thinks it’s her cancer medication that has caused major depression the past couple of months.

But there she was in the boat in Bigfork on Saturday. She returned home Sunday to receive a diploma from the Bible college course she’s been taking. A few days later she was in Lemmon, South Dakota, at the military funeral for her father, who passed away unexpectedly in March.

Where would she be if she hadn’t climbed those stairs?
“Probably sitting in my bed crying,” Johnson said.
“I realized it’s just life. You’re given life, and there is no wrong or right individual. It’s the same with cancer. There’s no right or wrong how you handle it but it’s all a battle,” she said. “It’s not the fact that one person’s diagnosis was worse or her treatment was worse. It’s just that we’ve all faced this disease and we’re all walking this journey together.”

As inspiring as they were, those early support meetings weren’t enough for Condit. She’d dabbled with the idea of dragon boat racing in 2016 but could get only a handful of other breast cancer thrivers to join. At least 20 are needed for a full team.

“I’d never been in a boat, but I’m like, ‘Dammit, we’re going to do a dragon boat team,’” Condit said. “We were starting to work out together, finding a sisterhood, and the next summer we started carpooling up to Somers and we’d train there every week.”

By then there were just enough ladies for a full team. Their first races would have been at the 2017 Montana Dragon Boat Festival on Flathead Lake but it was called off due to wildfire smoke. That was the week Chessin died.
“The world works in woo-woo ways,” Condit said.

The expense of traveling and training so far from home was prohibitive. That November Condit did something she’d never attempted before. She formed a nonprofit, and so the Silver Lining Foundation was born. Its mission is to help women of western Montana who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer “achieve and maintain wellness of mind, body and spirit through emotional support, education, and physical activity.”

The name “Silver Lining” refers to the sisterhood that’s formed from the ravages of breast and other types of cancer.
There’s no cost to join, no requirements to attend. Membership is counted by those invited to the closed Facebook group “Silver Lining Montana.” At last count it had 200 members, most of them women from the Missoula area who’ve heard the words “you’ve got cancer.”
That’s way too many, but not more than is to be expected based on national averages, Condit said.
There’s also an open Facebook group, Silver Lining Foundation—Montana, where updates and fundraising opportunities are provided.
Besides the monthly gatherings at the Loft, Condit and Silver Lining have weekly physical training, Friday morning coffee hours at Caffé Dolce, weekly hikes during the summer and “unconditional love and support always.”
Some 50 members try their hands at dragon boat paddling.

“We get ladies of all shapes and sizes, some who’ve never been athletic before, never been part of a team before, who suddenly find a team to be with,” Condit said. “We’ve all been through the rodeo, some more intense than others, but it’s all the same when you get that diagnosis.”“Many people wonder why we paddle. It’s a captivating sport. It usually takes just one time in the boat to realize that.”
Celeste Baldwin spoke on behalf of all the Silver Lining ladies last Saturday at the rose ceremony in Bigfork. It has become a tradition at dragon boat festivals to halt racing for a midday observance of the breast cancer teams present. A thousand or more spectators and racers paused to listen while Baldwin’s teammates sat in two boats offshore clutching pink roses.
Musician Halladay Quist performed “Don’t Give Up,” a song she wrote specifically for a friend and cancer victim in the Flathead and one she said she’d be recording in Missoula this month.
When she finished, during a moment of silence, the Silver Lining women in the boat dropped their flowers into the water, a tribute to all those touched by cancer.

A good 46-foot dragon boat runs $5,000 to $6,000. Through donations and fundraisers, online and otherwise, Silver Lining reached a milestone in May, when Condit, Craveiro and others traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to buy two of their own.
That allowed the team to train at Salmon Lake on Sunday mornings and Tuesday evenings throughout the summer, for a festival in Lethbridge, Alberta, and for the Flathead Lake festival in early September.
The traditional dragon heads and tails, and the racing boats they go on, are supplied by festival organizers. So are the drummers in the bow of each boat, keeping the paddlers in rhythm, and the steerers who stand in the back.
“This sport has brought us together, and many of us would not change the courses of our lives,” Baldwin said into a microphone from the bank of the bay. “The sisterhood has grown because the cancer is truly the silver lining. We know that every day is a gift.”
Baldwin’s own cancer has metastasized, spreading beyond the lymph nodes to other parts of her body. There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer, no stage after Stage IV.

“We paddle to capture the spirit of the dragon, others to conquer the rage of their diagnosis,” she went on. “We paddle for those who are no longer with us, for those who are in remission, who are receiving their first diagnosis or hearing of a recurrence.
“We paddle for those bodies that are ravaged by chemotherapy, and for those who need our support. And we paddle for ourselves, celebrating our strength, our determination and our love for family, friends and life.”

Condit is a competitor. An avid cyclist, an athletic trainer and cutting horse breeder in former lives, her post-chemo career is as rural coordinator of the University of Montana’s family medicine residency program. It’s an administrative job, half-time, and “it’s cool,” she said.
“Post-cancer, I set my goals: low stress level, enjoy my life, enjoy my job,” Condit said. “Do I take it home with me? No.”
Still, she’s always up for a challenge. She and teammate Michelle Barthelmess signed up in Bigfork to paddle on a team in the Guts and Glory race — 1.5 kilometers rather than the sprint course of 200 meters.

What Condit didn’t expect was the half-dozen other Silver Lining ladies she inspired who decided to tackle the grueling race, which she described as “utter exhaustion because it’s going all out for 7½ minutes.”

“We were thrown together with other people. They named us the Drop-In Divas, a group of women who had never paddled together, and we killed it,” she said. “For these women it was such an accomplishment.

“I know what it feels like when you’re coming out of the end of treatment. There’s no way I could have done that. So to see some of our ladies who are in there, who are really recently finished with treatment or are still in it … It’s empowering.”
Craveiro isn’t sure but she’s guessing Condit is head of the Silver Lining Montana board of directors.
“I can tell you that Nan is clearly our leader,” she said. “Regardless of what her official role is, she is absolutely the inspiration and heart behind the type of inclusion and compassion this group represents. She really inspires us to be the best we can be and we all love her. I love her. She helps me feel like I have a life again.”

Baldwin, the dragon boat paddler who’s living with metastatic cancer, was late to the last practice at Salmon Lake State Park. She was in a line of cars up the Blackfoot that got stuck behind a slow-moving crane, she said, as she hurried to don her pink vest and paddle.
The sun was setting over the Mission Mountains when the two-hour workout ended. Twenty-one breast cancer thrivers climbed out of the new dragon boat, wet, maybe a bit chilly and with every right to be bitchy.
On closer inspection, their faces weren’t grim but outwardly or inwardly satisfied. Maybe even happy.

“You come here feeling crappy,” Baldwin allowed as she pulled out of the parking lot. “And when you leave you feel … better. The world’s not so heavy.”

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