Abreast In A Boat goes beyond being a floating support system for Maple Ridge resident Leila Ouimet.
A few months ago, the 39-yearold married mother of two joined AIAB's Fort Langley dragon boat crew made up of breast cancer survivors.
AIAB has six crews throughout the Lower Mainland. Its members paddle together to increase breast cancer awareness while offering support for one another.
Ouimet says that while cancer brings the members together, the topic of the disease rarely surfaces.
Exercise and camaraderie is their common bonds.
"The women there are amazing," Ouimet said. "They are so full of love and support. Anybody new, who comes into the group, they just embrace them."
Ouimet said the crew members are a "great resource to have" if she has questions or side effects from a medication, but cancer is definitely not the focus.
"We don't talk about cancer," she said. "Our focus is having fun and paddling."
AIAB communications chair Linda Hopwo said that over the past 17 years, paddlers have demonstrated that survivors can live a full and active life after a breast cancer diagnosis, without the fear of developing a painful condition called lymphedema.
Recent studies suggest that exercise may significantly reduce the risk of a cancer recurrence.
Ouimet concurs: "It's great exercise. I think women start to trust their bodies again because you're pretty shaken up, dealing with breast cancer. The process gives you confidence and helps you trust yourself again."
Wife to John and mom to 12year-old Aslan and three-year-old Eva, Ouimet was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2011.
Ouimet felt a lump in her left breast while she was breastfeeding Eva.
A pair of tumors were discovered.
"It was shocking but at the same time, my grandmother had been diagnosed at 37, as well," Ouimet said. "It was terrifying, especially having two kids."
A couple of weeks after her diagnosis, Ouimet underwent a double mastectomy and then went through 15 months of chemotherapy treatments.
She's currently off work while continuing to recover from treatments. Ouimet admits she battles fatigue and "chemo brain" but is otherwise doing great.
"I feel fantastic," Ouimet. "It's almost like being given a second chance at things."
Ouimet was introduced to AIAB in 2011, through a woman she met at a Maple Ridge walking group for people who are going through or have finished cancer treatment.
"I was telling her that I had been to a support group but I didn't really feel like it was the right fit for me," Ouimet said.
"She said, 'I've got a group for you!'"
A few months later, Ouimet took part in a novice paddle for breast cancer survivors.
Once the boat drifted out, Ouimet felt a connection.
"I loved it," she said. "I'd never really been into anything like that before."
Ouimet has joined the local AIAB crew at regattas and has a handful of medals to show for her efforts.
"We paddle against other teams, as well, but there's usually a breast cancer challenge race in a regatta," Ouimet said. "And actually, just this past summer in Nanaimo, our team won the gold."
Ouimet plans on taking her seat on the boat twice each week, once the next paddling season rolls around in March 2013.
"I can't imagine not doing it now," she said. "It's funny. it's something I couldn't imagine myself doing before this [joining the crew], and now I can't imagine myself not doing it."
AIAB currently has six members, including Ouimet, who live in the Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge area, and who travel to either Fort Langley or Rocky Point in Port Moody to paddle.
"It is our hope that we can raise awareness of AIAB in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, and to hopefully one day have a crew on one of the rivers," Hopwo said.
Visit AIAB's website at www. abreastinaboat.com or contact email@example.com to register or for more information.
AIAB's 2013 season runs from March to June.