Women pursue life with newfound passion

Published Oct 2, 2013 at 5:04 am (Updated Oct 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm)

Every three minutes a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. Her quality of life and sense of self are quickly affected. October is recognized as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Courage, strength, iron will, undaunted determination, a spirit of adventure and sense of fight is what breast cancer survivors of Pink Steel are all about. This amazing group of women organized to let the world know that they are strong and not about to give in to this dreaded disease.

In 2005, Lynn Franks-Meinert founded the Pink Steel dragon boat racing team to honor a friend who died of breast cancer. This Pittsburgh/South Hills-based team of women cancer survivors gives its members an outlet and plenty of support. Reminders of the pain and suffering that has filled their lives is put on hold as the women don their personal floatation devices, fill their position in the boat and paddle.

Upper St. Clair’s Naomi Herman learned of Pink Steel after reading a flyer on recruiting members. She made the call and soon attended a gathering with women of all ages and sizes, courageous survivors of the cancer women dread most.

“Cancer wasn’t in my life’s plan,” said Herman. “I didn’t swim or like being in water. I wasn’t interested in sports, not even checkers, but I went to a meeting and noticed a younger woman who was recovering from breast cancer surgery. She had the drive to not let cancer get the best of her. An inspiration to me, I realized that everyone there had gone through similar challenges. We share a bond far beyond the cancer experience.”

Two-time cancer survivor Maria Balestrieri of Canonsburg joined in 2011 after hearing about Pink Steel at a Magee Hospital survivors’ program. She has enjoyed being part of the team since then. “I’ve never been athletic, but my competitive nature quickly took over,” Balestrieri said. “We all work at staying in shape, both for health reasons and the team. Winter exercise workouts are offered in our team room at the yacht club, but many work at staying fit on their own. The camaraderie is wonderful, encouraging a feeling that we can do anything we set out to do.”

The Pink Steel team prepares for the boating season with camp early in the year. Mid-May through September, practice sessions are held at 6:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and 8:30 a.m. Saturdays at the Fox Chapel Yacht Club on the Allegheny River.

For more details, email naomigherman@gmail.com.

Pink Steel recently took second place to a Vermont team at the national competition in New Jersey. The last race of the season will be held in Orlando Oct. 17.

Excerpts from Maria Balestrieri’s poem “Making of an Athlete”:

She is scarred and bruised, battered and torn.

She has grieved, she has lost and mourned.

She overcame the odds to be here tonight.

And fears of recurrence aren’t quite out of sight.

If you pass on the street, you’d have no clue.

Of what she just discovered that she can do ...

She is brave and capable and one with her team.

At times she’s so amazed, it seems like a dream.

The practice is over; it’s time for the race.

And miracle of miracles, the team takes first place.

She glances around at the strong women she sees.

And suddenly realizes one of them is she.

Info box: Dragon boating

Dragon boating originated in China about 2,500 years ago. A dragon boat resembles a long, slender canoe adorned with a dragon head to ward off evil spirits. A crew of 20 rows in unison to the beat of a drum.

In 1996, Dr. Don McKenzie, a professor in the Sports Medicine Department at the University of British Columbia, challenged medical thinking that women treated for breast cancer should avoid rigorous upper body exercise for fear of developing lymphedema. He started a breast cancer survivor paddling program to determine the impact of exercise choosing dragon boating as the epitome of strenuous, repetitive upper body exercise. He trained 24 volunteers for three months in a gym. At the end of the three-month boating season none had lymphedema.

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