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Diane Cotting, Founder of Cotting Connection
Diane Cotting's story of Breast cancer recovery
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It started with a simple craving. I had just completed the MBA Program at Simmons College in Boston when I decided I needed some fresh air and exercise. Diane Rowing on the Charles RiverWhile riding my bike along the Esplanade, I was drawn to the Charles River and its rowers. 

I soon signed on for a Learn to Row class at Community Rowing, and by the end of the first class, I was hooked.  Until that time, my only previous claim to athleticism was a class in bowling for the physical education requirement in college.  But in the next two years I helped found the Style Driven Rowing Club of Boston, an all-women's club (with an average age of 45.) and soon found that rowing became the focal point in my life.  My sport and my team became everything to me.  That fall we ended our first season by racing in the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta.  Life was good.
Cotting Connection, Rowing on the CharlesAnother year passed. We practiced 3 days a week at 5:30 am, cross-trained and made plans to travel and race and celebrate our common love and our tight friendships.  Our families followed.  They came to every regatta.  They wore our team jackets.  They took pictures and celebrated by cheering us at every finish line regardless of the outcome -we were simply thrilled just to be in the races.  We looked forward to our next practice. We plotted and planned our next event.  Rowing was everything.  It was like breathing - it was what we did.

After training all winter, I hit the water in April of 1999, more fit than I had ever been.  The fact that I had found a small lump in my left breast that my doctor thought should "come out" never fazed me.  The fact that the lump seemed to have grown by the time my appointment came didn't concern me either.  So, when I announced to my team that I was going to miss a practice for this insignificant excision, I was annoyed by my friend's instance on being my escorts.  I was just fine and this was nothing more than an office visit.  It was a good thing they ignored me.

curvesThe day of the "event" - two of my rower friends simply showed up to be with me at the hospital.  Good thing.  The doctor was completely unprepared for what she found.  I had a 5x5cm tumor that she removed under local anesthesia.  I was screaming at the top of my lungs.  Two weeks later on April 20, 1999 while taking the stitches out, the doctor announced "Oh by the way, its cancer" We really need to address what you should do about this.  Diane Cotting, Breast Cancer Survivor
Are you here alone? Thank God, once again, a friend had shown up to be with me.  I was told I could have lumpectomy or mastectomy and that I should buy Susan Love's book to decide.  I went home and stared at the wall.  How was I going to tell my husband?

My rowing friends got together, got me out of that facility and had me seen within days at the Dana Farber Cancer Center here in Boston.  My real battle against cancer began.  I had three more lumpectomies aiming for breast preservation but never getting clean margins.  I was pleading with God that the next step would not be a mastectomy.  Be careful what you wish for!  I had a pre-operative MRI which showed a spot on my lung.  My doctors feared the cancer had metastasized.  All bets were off.

curvesThe lung surgery confirmed the lesion was not cancer.  Who would ever have guessed I would be grateful to reschedule a mastectomy?  I had a lymph node dissection with a sentinel node biopsy.  Two microscopic cancer cells were found.  I then had a mastectomy with tram flap (a type of breast reconstruction) surgery on 6/29/1999.  My veins were a mess.  I had a port-a-cath installed.  Three months of chemotherapy followed.  My hair fell out.  I bought a wig.  All in all I had 9 surgeries in 8 months.

"Getting back to rowing was always my goal."
Diane Cotting, getting back to rowing

curvesAfter my surgeries I didn't know where to go for rehabilitation.  My body had been reconstructed and re-arranged.  My plastic surgeon had removed half of my abdominal muscles to help create my new breast.  My new body was foreign to me and I was afraid I might not be physically able to return to the sport I loved.  I asked my doctor for a prescription for physical therapy.  He seemed surprised and said he didn't usually get asked that question but he did give me the prescription and told me to call my insurance company for approved providers.  Then, before leaving my breast surgeon's office I was handed a list of don'ts to prevent lymphedema, a non-fatal but incurable side effect of breast cancer surgeries.  Topping the list of don'ts was lifting any thing over five pounds and performing repetitive upper body motions.  The school of thought at that time was that those exercises could lead to swelling, numbness, and/or infection in my arm and hand.  In other words, according to the list, rowing was out.  But my sport was everything to me.  Getting back in the boat was what motivated me to fight so hard against the cancer.  There was no question about it.  I was getting back in that boat!

Now all I had to do was find a physical therapist could help rehabilitate me so I could actually do the rowing movement.  After all I was missing 1/2 of Janet Jackson's magnificent six-pack of abdominal muscles.  To my surprise, the several Physical Therapists I interviewed were completely unfamiliar with the surgeries I had that were then considered "routine".  At one point in treatment the therapist I did select put a heating pad on my left shoulder to loosen it up.  What he didn't know or thought to ask was that due to the surgeries, I had no feeling on my left side.  My surgeon was furious; I could have been burned. But he had no suggestions on where to send me.  There was no such thing as cancer rehab.   

curvesThat's when I discovered the missing link in the post-surgical phase of cancer recovery.  Where does one go when you graduate from cancer treatment?  How do you transition from cancer patient to active cancer survivor?  No one seemed to know.  In spite of that fact that cancer centers were churning out thousands of survivors each and every day the treatments for cancer were improving and changing so quickly that no one stopped to add that information to the college curriculum or pass it on to professionals already practicing in the field.  As a result, we have created a generation of women limited in their activities and the use of their arms - a generation of physically challenged breast cancer survivors.

Diane Cotting, founder of Cotting ConnectionBecause I was a rower, my team was there to make sure I was able to reach my goals.  My coach, Olympic gold medalist, Holly Metcalf and my personal trainer, another Olympian, Abigail Peck worked with my medical team at Dana Farber Cancer Center to develop a training regime specific to my needs.  (Imagine all these amazing athletes doting on me!)  And my teammates made sure I followed this well balanced program of hard work, lots of rest and good nutrition to the letter.  Four months after my final surgery I was back in the boat, a strong and fit member of my rowing team.

 “One in Nine”

Diane Cotting and her coach, Holly Metcalf

curvesI was so happy to be back on the water, back in the groove, I didn’t think much about what I had been through over that long year.  But soon I started hearing people drop little cancer expressions, like the name of a drug or a side effect common to those who have been through treatment.  I realized that I was not the only one out there who had survived cancer and were rowing.  And I thought I was the only naughty girl who ignored the warnings.   I realized that we needed to show other women who had been through these treatments and were afraid to get active or those women living in fear of the dreaded diagnosis that there could be a health active life on the other side.  That’s when Holly Metcalf and I decided to put a team of breast cancer survivors together to train and race the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta.

I sent out an email to women I knew across the country who had been treated for breast cancer and who were actively training to race in rowing events.  I wanted women for this team who would be willing to share their story with anyone who was interested.  They would come to Boston, train for 3 days under Holly's tutelage and race the 3.2 mile course down the windy Charles River in Boston.  Within 48 hours I had a team of 4 ports, 4 starboards and a coxswain from as far away as California to meet the challenge.  Our ages ranges from 37 to 63.  Only a few of the women even knew each other but everyone was excited!  Then 2 weeks before the event, Michelle, the youngest on the team was re-diagnosed.  After meeting with her doctors she decided to come to Boston, get a second opinion while she was here and race the race.  After that there was no turning back. If Michelle could do it, so could we.

Team "One in Nine", rowing on the Charles RiverWe named our team “One in Nine” which was the statistic at the time for the number of women expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.  (The number these days is 1 in 7)  Media from across the country picked up on the story following us with cameras, microphones and note pads almost every waking minute leading up to Race day.  We made a film called “One in Nine” documenting our experience and sharing our stories.  The film won multiple awards in film festivals around the country.  (PURCHASE ONE IN NINE FILM HERE) 

The Lance Armstrong Foundation funded a tour of the film to promote healthy life styles for survivors. 


“Got Life? Get Living!”

curvesIt was on that tour I came to see all too clearly the huge gap in the system that existed.  I thought my problem with the system came because I wanted to get back to a sport as demanding as rowing.  At every screening of the film I found myself surrounded by women who wondered how I was able to row.  They were told to limit movement in their arms and had suffered frozen shoulder as a result.  Some were afraid to carry the groceries or even lift their own children because of the risk of lymphedema.  Most had little understanding of the treatments they had endured and many were living in self-imposed fear.  I was not comfortable as an expert on resources for rehabilitation after breast cancer but thatís where I found myself.  And that's when my mission began. 

To help others in the recuperative stages of breast cancer, I founded the non-profit organization Cotting Connection, Inc.  Our mission is to provide those enduring cancer with the resources they need to facilitate complete physical and emotional healing.  Our motto is “Got Life, Get Living.”  Our initial goal was to locate trained care providers and make their names available to interested survivors.  The problem became clear very quickly – there were almost no names at all to put on the list.   We continued to dig over the first few years until we decided to reach out to trained professionals already practicing in the general population.  We offered our first full day symposium “Becoming Cancer Conscious” in the spring of 2004 bringing information on cancer treatments directly from the Cancer Care Professionals themselves to those physical therapists and fitness professionals working with the public.

Cancer Rehab, the New Fronteir symposiumIn September, 2006, Cotting Connection presented the groundbreaking conference, Cancer Rehabilitation, The New Frontier to an audience hungry for the information offered by top physicians, physical, occupational & massage therapists trained in cancer treatments and rehabilitation.   The feedback was nothing less than stunning.  It was clear that Cancer Rehabilitation should be prescribed automatically to everyone who has been treated for cancer.  To serve that need, every student in the healthcare field must be given the tools they will need to work with the 10 million cancer survivors in the country and 1 million newly diagnosed patients each year. 

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