Paddling against cancer


By JOHN BURNETT

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Many would consider a cancer diagnosis as being up the creek without a paddle.

Four local women are making a stand against the disease by paddling a canoe on the Hilo Bayfront.

Three are cancer survivors; two of them have had breast cancer. So when they formed a hui and bought a canoe that needed some repair work a couple of years ago, they decided to paint the vessel pink.

"One of our goals is awareness about breast cancer and to support thriving," said Paula Vickery, 62, an advanced practice registered nurse specializing in psychiatry. "There's a life after diagnosis; there's a life after treatment, to hop in the boat and get on the water. It gets you out of yourself. It puts you back in touch with nature. It validates that you're alive."

Vickery, who's originally from Canada, has been cancer-free for about three years. She and another breast cancer survivor, 66-year-old Lavina Lindsey, who grew up in Laupahoehoe, started the informal canoe club. Both are veteran paddlers and Puna Canoe Club members. The other two women are Jackie Werner, 76, a recreational paddler who's survived four bouts with melanoma, a deadly skin cancer, and Donna Herbst, a Kamehameha Canoe Club member, who at 55 is the youngest and the only one who has not been diagnosed with cancer.

"I do it to support them and their cause and I do it because I was able to financially help because we had to get the canoe fixed up," said Herbst, a Realtor who owns Pacific Isle Properties.

Added Lindsey: "We bought the boat and we needed repairs and painting, so we had two fundraising garage sales and made over $1,000. People didn't know we were doing this for the cancer boat, so we're very fortunate."

Herbst's husband, Chris, worked out a deal with canoe builder Papu Williams for the repair and paint job. The women named the canoe "Ho'oulu," which, according to the Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian Dictionary, means to grow, increase or inspire.

"It's now and the future; it's moving forward," Vickery said. "The cheer at the end of our paddling is 'imua,' which means 'go forward.'"

The women get together on Sundays with their families and friends for what Vickery called "our social group." But they also do special outings for cancer patients and families who have lost a loved one to cancer.

"Sometimes we take ashes out for scattering, and sometimes we take out people who are in chemotherapy and are really ill and just want to get out into the ocean," said Werner, a retired hairdresser.

Lindsey, who's worked as a visitor industry food and beverage manager, has been paddling since 1968. A breast cancer survivor, she's also been living with chronic lymphocytic leukemia for more than eight years.

"I was almost near death in 2003, and this has brought me more life," she said.

After undergoing chemotherapy, Lindsey has turned to naturopathic medicine to keep the disease at bay. She finds that paddling helps her keep a positive attitude.

"Being out there with Mother Nature, being on the water, it's so invigorating," she said. "It's a wonderful life out there to do something fulfilling, to enjoy the trees and the birds and the flowers and everything about our island. It's so beautiful, especially our Hilo town."

Werner said she is gratified by the opportunity to "brighten someone's life."

"We had a lady and her husband had passed away and she'd had the ashes for a long time," she said. "Her children came from the mainland and Honolulu; their grandchildren came. We took out five or six canoes, and we spread the ashes. ... Each grandchild had part of the ashes. Lavina's husband helped her into the canoe. It was really a nice thing because you make someone's life a tiny bit happier."

All of the women say they cherish their camaraderie.

"We've been blessed with each other," Vickery said. "We've been blessed with our good health, that we can get out there and do it and say thanks for a beautiful day."

Email John Burnett at
jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.