Rowing Research

When the Head of the Charles Regatta glides into Boston this weekend, it won't be just rowing enthusiasts who will be lining the banks of the river. 7Healthcast reporter Janet Wu found this fall classic could help break new ground in the fight against breast cancer.

Reported by:
Janet Wu

Rowing has long been discouraged for women who've had breast cancer surgery. But the determination of one local woman has inspired research to see if rowing may actually help survivors.

It's 6 a.m. on a chilly autumn morning and Diane Cotting is where she loves to be, on the Charles River, rowing.

Diane Cotting
"It's been such a power in my life, not just on the water but everywhere."

In fact, her teammates were with her when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Along with a mastectomy and chemotherapy, Diane had lymph nodes removed - putting her at risk for lymphedema.

Dr. Carolyn Kaelin, Brigham & Women's Hospital
"Lymphedema when applied to breast cancer is the swelling in the arm because the lymph fluid is not able to get through the lymphatic drainage channels."

The swelling can lead to numbness and infection in the arms and hands. To lower the risk, patients are told to avoid upper body exercise, like rowing.

Diane Cotting
"I thought you're kidding me, I've come this far and I've done all these things to recover and live and you're going to take my rowing away from me that just wasn't going to happen."

Diane's determination inspired her doctor to launch a study to see if rowing really does trigger lymphedema.

Dr. Carolyn Kaelin
"Many other breast cancer survivors who are avid rowers have never developed lymphedema."

Dr. Kaelin admits she's not yet convinced rowing leads to lymphedema, and wonders if it may even help.

Dr. Carolyn Kaelin
"It may be very possible that rigorous arm exercise does not increase the rate of lymphedema in which case all these exercise restrictions can be lifted."

For Diane, and many other breast cancer survivors, that would be great news.

Diane Cotting
"I'd be thrilled. Something inside me tells me what I'm doing every day is making a huge difference in my life in general."

At the regatta this weekend, Dr. Kaelin hopes to collect data from more than 500 women rowers. Diane will be on the Charles River, racing with her teammates from the 'Style-Driven Rowing Club'.

Be sure to cheer them on.