For breast cancer survivors, with challenge comes freedom
Donna Landerman of Bloomfield, Conn., hangs from the ropes course at Sargent Camp.
Betty J. Borry
Ellen Moran, who founded Adventure Weekend with Betty Borry, guides the participants in the kayak portion of the program, fitting each to the right boat and teaching basic strokes and the importance of just enjoying being on the water, whatever your pace, whatever the weather.
Donna Landerman, left, of Bloomfield, Conn.; Lisa Thomann, of Westminister, Mass.; Ellen Moran, kayak instructor, of Hancock; Jennifer King, of North Hampton; and Margaret Gurney, of Dublin take to Half Moon Pond at this past fall's Adventure Weekend at Sargent Center in Hancock.
Cynthia Cote, right, with program facilitator and board member Christine Landry scoping out the ropes course before participants choose their challenges.
Lisa Thomann, in the blue helmet, of Westminster, Mass., hugs Wendy Cogswell, in yellow, a Betty J. Borry Breast Cancer Retreats volunteer, of Manchester.
Lisa Thomann, blue helmet, of Westminster, Mass., hugs Nancy Torode, yellow helmet, of Wolfeboro.
Sometimes it’s life’s greatest challenges that make us realize our strength.
Things don’t always go according to plan. Sometimes you plan a nice kayaking adventure for fellow breast cancer survivors, and “the most hellacious wind, lightning and thunderstorm I’ve ever seen” lands that same weekend, as Ellen Moran remembered.
“Half Moon Pond looked like the high seas,” Cynthia Cote said, recalling a day more than a decade ago in Hancock . “It was a mess out there.”
But a little challenge never slowed Betty J. Borry down. She waited for the lightning to pass and led her troop onto the pond to do what they set out to. It was the inaugural Adventure Weekend , after all.
“Betty says we’ve got to go out, so we went,” Cote recalled of that October 1995 weekend, when she joined 14 other women in an outdoor-oriented, breast cancer support group on a weekend trip to Hancock’s Sargent Center.
An avid outdoorswoman and former assistant principal of Great Brook School in Antrim, Borry, who was facing a cancer recurrence at the time, yearned for a support group that was more her style, focused on living, doing and enjoying the great outdoors. She’d seen an episode of “60 Minutes” that promoted an Outward Bound-type of adventure program for women with breast cancer and decided to bring that idea to life locally. She went to Moran, her friend and then-manager of the Peterborough Eastern Mountain Sports store, and asked her if she could help.
“I’d actually seen the ‘60 Minutes’ story as well,” Moran said. “So when she came in and mentioned it, it was kind of an epiphany that yeah, we can do that. Why not?”
Moran, with the help of EMS, had enough gear to make it happen and was familiar with the nearby Sargent Center, which would become the longtime home of the annual retreat. She wasn’t sure where to get the funding from, but Borry was on top of that.
“Betty [was] a very tenacious woman,” said Moran, who lives in Hancock. “She went to the American Cancer Society in Bedford and lobbied for funding and received it.”
And so Betty J. Borry Breast Cancer Retreats was born.
Sixteen years later, and more than a decade after complications with her beast cancer recurrence took Borry’s life, the program is still going strong.
“It’s carrying on. We wouldn’t dare not to,” said Cote, the president and executive director of Betty J. Borry Breast Cancer Retreats, who was handpicked by Borry herself before her death to carry on the program. “I’d be struck down,” she joked.
At times it hasn’t been easy to keep the program up and running, though. That American Cancer Society funding was withdrawn in 2010, and in 2011 it wasn’t possible to fund an Adventure Weekend or a winter retreat, which Cote, a Durham resident, implemented as a way for Adventure Weekend participants to keep close ties. Next year, they’re starting with one retreat in either early summer or fall and seeing how far their donors will carry them.
In the past, the cost for the weekend has been about $150 a person — that includes the cost of masseuses or yoga instructors that may be included in the Adventure Weekend — though that may not be exact cost this year, since an early-summer retreat might present a scheduling conflict at Sargent Camp and force them to find a different destination. Donations go to a scholarship fund for women who can’t afford the fee.
Cote notes that the camp fee is infused back into the local economy, so it’s a win-win for donors who are considering “sending a gal to camp,” as she says, and the experience for the women can be downright life-changing.
“It’s extremely important, particularly early in the process of breast cancer, that women have that opportunity to kind of reach outside their comfort zone,” Cote said.
The sense of empowerment that the Adventure Weekend experience gives women has inspired many to follow their hearts, Cote said. They’ve gone on to really pursue their dreams, in some cases for the first time, they’ve left jobs that weren’t right for them and they’ve moved on from toxic relationships “because,” Cote said, “they have the power.” “If they can go through cancer treatment, they can go through anything.”
The idea is to show women they can be thriving, not just surviving. “We’re evidence of that,” Cote said.
Kathleen Russell, 70, of Greenfield is proof that even in old age, breast cancer survivors can accomplish new and exciting things. She went to her first Adventure Weekend this year and said she’ll donate every year for the rest of her life.
“I learned to kayak,” she exclaimed. “Something on my bucket list, and I was 70 years old! ... It was just exhilarating. The difference [between this and other support groups] is you’re much more active and it’s over a long period of time. Groups usually last an hour or two, but this is all weekend. You’re immersed in it. And you come out feeling like ‘I did it.’ ... It’s probably the most courageous group I’ve ever met in one spot in my life.”
Wendy Cogswell of Manchester didn’t know what to expect when she went to her first retreat in 2005, but now she’s the vice president of Betty J. Borry Breast Cancer Retreats. “As the weekend moved forward, all of us women supported each other. We were adventure women. I loved the challenge. It changed my life. I had to conquer my fears. I knew that I could handle whatever came in front of me. Truly amazing,” she said.
Clara Camuso-Reed of Epping went to the very first Adventure Weekend after being diagnosed in 1993 and has been back to every one since. “Adventure Weekend gave me hope and courage,” she said. “I never want to tell my story in a circle with a box of tissues again. I left that weekend knowing I had cancer but that it didn’t have me.”
And Jennifer King of North Hampton, whose breast cancer was detected at Stage 1 recently, said seeing with more progressed diseases facing physical challenges inspired her. She specializes in outdoor education and used to run ropes courses, and watching her fellow campers shoot down the zip-line from the top of the ropes course was a climactic moment for her. “It was really life-changing and I was in tears watching them come down with all the support around them and all the cheering.” It’s not just about the challenge of the course, she said, but all the other challenges involved with the disease.
This is a group of women that has seen its fair share of hard times, so when the weather looks threatening before an Adventure Weekend, as it inevitably does, they say, “Here comes Betty, coming out of heaven. We’re gonna’ get one.” But they don’t let that stop them, Betty sure wouldn’t.
This is a group that overcomes its challenges. “There’s always been [something.] It’s life. You never know, you can’t control everything,” Cote said.