The water cure: Storytelling event in Northampton will examine how cancer survivors move beyond the disease, including competitive rowing

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 02-03-2023 4:57 PM

Story slams have become all the rage in the last couple of decades, an outgrowth of poetry slams in which competitors tell real-life tales instead of reciting verse. The topics vary, but the goal is the same: tell short, engaging and truthful stories.

Most competitions are built around a selected theme, and when people gather at Northampton’s Academy of Music Feb. 11 for an evening of storytelling, the subject will be one that most of us view with fear and dread: cancer.

But the participants at this session, sponsored by Paradise City Dragon Boat (PCDB), intend to turn that notion on its ear: These are in fact stories of hope and resiliency, of surviving cancer or living with it but not being defined by the disease.

The Dragon Boat group, which operates from Sportsman’s Marina in Hadley on the Connecticut River, is an organization made up of cancer survivors and their supporters who say they find strength and camaraderie in racing the long, narrow boats and training for competitions.

The group’s focus, says member Jennifer Smith, is on encouraging people to take control of their bodies and not allowing cancer to dominate them.

“When we’re out on the water, and everyone’s paddling together, cancer is the last thing on our minds,” said Smith, a Williamsburg resident who’s dealt with breast cancer in the last several years. “The support from this community of people is just phenomenal.”

Dragon Boat racing, which began in China over 2,000 years ago, has now become an international sport, with groups located all over the world, says Mary Morris, another member of the Hadley-based group.

It’s also become an international movement for breast cancer survivors in particular, as exercise from rowing is considered a good counter to muscle loss from mastectomies and to lymphedema, swelling that can occur in women after the surgical removal of lymph nodes.

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The Hadley group, which has about 40 members, from people in their 30s up to 80 years old, has raced on the Connecticut River outside Springfield and Hartford, on the Charles River in Boston, and on Lake Champlain in Vermont, among other places.

The feeling of support Smith, 64, has received from being part of the team got her to thinking a few years ago about other ways to advance that sense of mission.

“I wanted to see and hear from people who were really determined to beat this disease, to lead fulfilling lives,” said Smith, an administrator for social services for residents of southern Vermont. “I thought that was a message that could resonate with a broader audience, not just people dealing with cancer.”

She reached out to an old friend, Susanne Schmidt, a producer for The Moth, the New York literary organization that produces storytelling events across the U.S. and overseas. Would Schmidt be willing to help put together an event with PCDB that would feature cancer survivors telling their stories?

Smith said Schmidt not only agreed to help, she agreed to do it for free.

“I’m a total fan of The Moth, so to have someone from the show working with us has been such an inspiration,” she said.

Some months back, a program committee at PCDB put out a call for story proposals from cancer survivors through varied avenues: social media, groups such as Northampton’s Cancer Connection, and other peer networks.

In the end, Smith says, they received 35 submissions from cancer survivors from across the region, including from members of the Dragon Boat group. After Schmidt whittled down some of those entries, the committee, of which Smith is a part, collectively settled on stories from eight people.

In the last couple of months, Schmidt has worked with the eight finalists in group and one-on-one Zoom sessions to sharpen the stories and coach each person on how to best present them.

“We think this is going to be great show,” said Smith.

Being onstage

Andrea Kandel, a PCDB member who lives in Pelham, will be one of those presenters. She remembers feeling utterly devastated when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005; she was in her early 50s then.

“I had a young child, and I wanted to be here to watch her grow up,” said Kandel, who’s now 69. “It was heart-wrenching.”

But Kandel, who’s retired from directing the National Conference for Community and Justice, a Connecticut-based nonprofit group, has been cancer-free for years and has watched her daughter become a young woman; she’s now 26. Kandel attributes some of her success to joining the Dragon Boat team in 2019.

“I’ve never been an athlete, but my body has never been in better shape than it is today,” she said. “I tried being part of some cancer support groups when I was diagnosed, but it didn’t work for me — I was scared to hear all these other sad stories.”

With PCDB, Kandel added, “The focus is not on cancer, though everyone there has been touched by it in some way. But we’re all so committed to working together as a team — it just lifts my spirits.”

Though she enjoys hearing first-person stories herself, Kandel says she has no theatrical experience and initially didn’t think she’d want to tell her own tale at the Feb. 11 event. Then she reconsidered.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to be 70 — it’s time,’ ” she said. “And it’s been exciting to work with Susanne, even if the idea of being alone on stage gives me a lump in my throat. Susanne said ‘You’re all gonna feel like throwing up,’ so I guess being nervous is just part of the process.”

That’s probably not the case for Beth Lux, a Greenfield lawyer and Dragon Boat member who notes she’s had plenty of experience in “the theater of the court,” she said with a laugh. “I’m used to performing for a jury. That’s definitely part of the job.”

Lux, 52, who will present a story on Feb. 11, was also diagnosed with breast cancer, in her case in 2009 when she was in her late 30s and had young children. In those early years, she says, all her efforts were focused on family and just trying to keep things at home as normal as possible.

But in 2019, her oncologist suggested she check out the Dragon Boat program, and she was soon hooked, which surprised her. Though she’d previously been a dancer, Lux says she never had much success in sports: “I had a classmate in 7th grade who signed my yearbook ‘To the worst softball player on the planet.’”

Lux, who’s been cancer-free for years now, wasn’t taken at first by the theme of the PCDB event, though she’s a fan herself of storytelling programs like The Moth and NPR’s “This American Life.”

“I thought, ‘Who’s going to come to that? Who wants to hear cancer stories? That sounds depressing,’ ” she said.

But when she considered her experience with the Dragon Boat team, Lux decided she’d take part in the Academy of Music event and create a story about her experience.

“If these can be stories that make you laugh as well as cry, then it can really be special,” she said.

The storytelling sessions, which will serve as a fundraiser for Paradise City Dragon Boat, will have an added element: Guitarist and songwriter June Millington, co-founder of The Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen, will play music during the program.

“We hope this can be something people of all walks can appreciate as a celebration of life,” said Smith.

Tickets for “Cancer Survivors: Stories of Hope and Resilience” are available at aomtheatre.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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